‘Tribes’ at The Studio Theatre by Sydney-Chanele Dawkins

Every word we speak – whether verbally or by signing – can be a brick to build or a bulldozer to destroy.

Michael Tolaydo (Christopher), Annie Funke (Ruth), Richard Gallagher (Daniel), and James Caverly (Billy). Photo by Teddy Wolff.
Michael Tolaydo (Christopher), Annie Funke (Ruth), Richard Gallagher (Daniel), and James Caverly (Billy). Photo by Teddy Wolff.

You don’t have to have the ability to hear . . . to want to be heard.

How do you live out loud, when you are searching for your own voice?

The brilliant examination of the limitations of language and the communication clash of a deaf son in an unyielding hearing family is the focus of Tribes by British playwright Nina Raine, and directed by Studio Theatre’s Artistic Director David Muse. Tribes, is The Studio Theatre’s latest production in The Mead Theatre, and the Olivier Award (Best New Play) and Drama Desk (Best Foreign Play) Award winner is the second offering in a year long New British Invasion Festival showcasing innovative plays by British writers under 40.

The desire to be understood and the sacrifices ‘to belong’ are crystalized in Tribes as denial, disconnect, and the the rift between hearing and listening are probed. Raine’s refreshing approach and her eloquent use of language with the detailed subject matters is eye-opening.

Billy (James Caverly), the adult son of a bombastic, opinionated, egocentric family has been integrated into the hearing world and raised to lip read, never learning to sign. Sparks fly, tempers’ flair, and the family unit is threatened when his upbringing and ‘conformity to the majority’ indoctrination are challenged and called into question. Billy’s view of the world is broadened when he meets Sylvia (Helen Cespedes), a young woman who is going deaf herself, but raised by two deaf parents.

For the first time, Billy is taking steps to create his own destiny and define life on his own terms.

This Nina Raine play is a meat of a play. It’s the type of production I especially enjoy, because as a patron you leave the theatre satiated, with both your heart and mind full and properly fed. The deeply plotted Tribes educates as much as it entertains, and perhaps more importantly this moving drama makes you feel something and forces you to think.

Billy is no different from any of us. He wants to be recognized and loved for all of whom he is. Yet, since birth he has found himself treated differently – a separate but equal existence – because of his loss of hearing. Sign language and signing for Billy is an introduction to being fully accepted and understood by the world of the Deaf community – thus allowing Billy the freedom of fully expressing himself. The intricacies and varieties of deafness are observed, and the effect and influence of Deaf culture are one of the several themes broached in Tribes.

If life is a battlefield, words are the weapons of choice for this family.

Tribes introduces us to an eccentric, intellectual British family that shows it’s love by how much time they spend grilling, degrading, and insulting you. It’s not the easiest place to be if you have self esteem issues, but it’s also the type of environment where you either sink or swim. This book smart, highly verbal family is unwittingly deaf and dumb to the sensitivities and emotional needs of each other, yet the cleverness of their repartee doesn’t disguise the frailty of the characters.

The response to Billy’s cultural evolution by his father (Michael Tolaydo), mother (Nancy Robinette), and Billy’s two, twenty-something-still-live at-home-siblings, Ruth (Anne Funke) and Daniel (Richard Gallagher) inject many funny moments and humor into this identity play.

Robinette is perfection. She knows how to work a beat, massage the pauses, and fill the silences with telling facial expressions and hilarious body language.

This ‘tribe’ of actors in addition to Helen Cespedes (Sylvia), is the best ensemble cast collaboration I’ve seen this season. The cast performs as if they’ve been doing this for months – they’re loose, their British accents are consistent and sound authentic – and they are really LISTENING to one another. The timing is impeccable and the fluid performances are in sync. Michael Tolaydo (Christopher) is ferocious in his profane portrait of a self-centered, domineering patriarch whose bluntness is insulting bordering on abusive. Richard Gallagher’s fearless and complex performance is masterful. Gallagher has created such character depth that Nina Raine could write another play of the family saga on him and his relationship with Billy.

The lived-in, bohemian, kitchen-den compactly arranged by set designer Wilson Chin, with its book-crammed, strewn about paintings decor with the piano next to the refrigerator, makes a strong statement about who this family is before a word of dialogue is ever spoken.

James Caverly (Billy), and Helen Cespedes (Sylvia). Photo by Teddy Wolff.
James Caverly (Billy), and Helen Cespedes (Sylvia). Photo by Teddy Wolff.

Muse’s clever injection of Ryan Rumery’s statement-making, aural landscape sound design with his indelible song selections as scene transitions and the effective use of ‘sound loss’ to denote the ‘sound’ of the deaf world is ingenious. The production was creatively enhanced by the lighting design of Mathew Richards and Erik Trester’s projections that periodically lined the three walls with images and surtitles for dialogue and thought translation.

I devoured this play, will see it again, and highly recommend Tribes for the fascinating experience of observing linguistic chaos and family dysfunction in motion – where audibles don’t exist when the noises of life scream. Your intellect will be engaged, a psychological and philosophical menagerie of emotions will be felt, and the performances won’t soon be forgotten. Tribes is a daring production that forces you to confront the communication breakdowns in your own family and the private worlds you belong.

Running time: Two hours and 15 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.


Tribes plays through February 23, 2013 at The Studio Theatre in the Mead Theatre – 1501 14th Street, NW, in Washington, D.C. For tickets, call (202) 332-3300, or purchase them online.

Synesthesia: Deaf Actor James “Joey” Caverly Portrays Deaf Character in ‘Tribes’ at The Studio Theatre by Yvonne French.

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Sydney-Chanele Dawkins
Sydney-Chanele Dawkins is an award-winning feature filmmaker, film curator, film festival producer and a theater/film critic and arts writer. She also serves as an impassioned advocate for the Arts as Chair of the Alexandria Commission for the Arts in Alexandria, VA. Fearless. Tenacious. Passionate. Loyal. These characteristics best describe Sydney-Chanele's approach to life, her enthusiasm for live theater and the arts, and her cinephile obsession with world cinema. Her successful first film, 'Modern Love is Automatic' premiered at SXSW in Austin, Texas, and made its European debut at the Edinburgh Film Festival. She recently completed her third film, the animated - 'The Wonderful Woes of Marsh' - which is rounding the film festival circuit. In 2013, Sydney-Chanele produced the box office hit,Neil Simon's Rumors for the McLean Community Players at Alden Theater, Her next producing effort in 2014 is Pearl Cleage's 'Blues for an Alabama Sky' for Port City Playhouse. Programmer for Cinema Art Bethesda and Co Chair of the Film Program for Artomatic, Sydney-Chanele is the past Festival Director of the Alexandria Film Festival, the Reel Independent Film Festival,and Female Shorts & Video Showcase. She is active in leadership and programming positions with DC Metro area Film Festivals including: Filmfest DC, DC Shorts, the Washington Jewish Film Festival, Arabian Sights Film festival, and AFI Docs. Please feel free to contact me with your comments and questions - [email protected] [Note: Sydney-Chanele Dawkins passed away on July 8, 2015, at age 47, after a battle with Breast Cancer.]


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