I play Billy, who has an uncanny ability to read lips and understand people while not being able to hear. He’s very sensitive and perceptive, yet isolated in how he was raised. I, myself, was born with severe hearing loss in both ears, and have worn hearing aids since I was 3 years old. Like Billy, I was raised by a hearing family adamant I not be treated differently because of my hearing loss. I never learned sign language as a child and also adapted very well in the hearing world. I immediately identified with Billy when I read the play. I totally understood not feeling entirely a part of the hearing world, nor the deaf world. I know what it’s like to be “sort of, but not really” included in the conversation. I know what it feels like to be dismissed by people – “never mind” – when asking “what?” because I didn’t hear the first or second time. I also get what it means to get by “bluffing”, as Sylvia and Billy talk about in the play – making believe you heard and understood something when you really didn’t catch it.
The big challenge for me playing Billy is that Billy is profoundly deaf, while I am not. With today’s technology, I am now able to live and hear as most hearing people do. While a lot of the physical characteristics are similar – the need to be still and to see the speaker in order to “hear”, the speech impediment was a challenge as well as, obviously, learning ASL in such a condensed period of time. Having played the role in Cincinnati last year, most of the difficult ASL learning has already been done. In reviving the role here in Vermont, I don’t feel quite the panic I felt in learning ASL like I did the first time around!
What I love most about this play is the way the writer wove in the sign language and spoken language to include hearing and deaf audiences alike. Sign language is an art form and a powerful form of expression. “Tribes” is a play that deals with the universal themes of family and romantic love layered with the choreography and poetry of ASL. It’s a wonderful play and I’m delighted to be a part of this production at Vermont Stage.