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Phoenix Theatre Players Take On Tough Roles in 'Tribes'

Cultures collide throughout this critically acclaimed play, and those moved by the performances in this production should know that the actors were likewise affected by their preparations for it.

Editor's Note: Tribes had its first curtain call in London in 2010. The play then crossed the Atlantic for Off Broadway performances that garnered a coveted "critic's pick" label from The New York Times. It has since trickled into theaters around the country, and Indianapolis's Phoenix Theatre. Indianapolis’ Phoenix Theater is no exception.

Ryan O’Shea sat at home on a Saturday afternoon, thumbing through the pages of a new play she picked up from her work at the Phoenix. She turned the last page with a sigh and tears in her eyes. She had to take part. 

The conviction that O’Shea felt in reading Tribes was not exclusive to her. Another cast member, Andrew Martin, was also immediately drawn to the story. 

“The play shows the wonderful things that can happen when someone finds their voice,” says Martin, who was cast as Billy, the show's lead male. O’Shea plays the other lead character, Sylvia. 

The story opens with Billy, a young deaf man, fresh out of college and moving back in with his parents and siblings. Billy’s family has taken a more antiquated approach to his lack of hearing. In hopes of making him feel more included, they have prevented him from learning sign language, forcing Billy to lip-read and train his speaking abilities. While the play has some signing (that is subtitled throughout the show), this plot point keeps the audience from having to read all of Billy’s lines. 

In contrast, Sylvia is born into a deaf family. She and her sister both have the same genetic disease that is causing them to go deaf over time. Because she has deaf parents, Sylvia is fluent in sign language and has been integrated into the deaf community from a young age. Both characters feel out of place in their respective worlds. 

“She doesn’t know what her life is going to be like,” says O’Shea, discussing her character’s search for balance. “She is realizing that her only form of communicating is this closely knit, hierarchical community. She starts to feel trapped. She wants something else in her life, other than this thing that she did not choose. She wants to be defined by something other than her lack of hearing.”

The hierarchy that O’Shea speaks of is a controversial ingredient in the script. She explains how the deaf community often is organized like a ladder—those born without hearing and fluent in sign language at the top, and those who become deaf over time or don't know how to sign hang on lower rungs. This is one of the key points bringing so much attention to the play. It will be interesting to see if the actors' portrayals of members of the deaf community spark a conversation in Indianapolis. O’Shea thinks they could do just that.

When Billy and Sylvia meet, she begins to teach him sign language and introduces him to the local deaf community. “You really see Billy grow up when he discovers his true language,” says Martin. “He starts to become a man. … He doesn’t feel a part of his family because he can’t contribute. [After learning sign language and integrating into the deaf community] he starts to feel like he belongs more with them than he does his own family.” 

As Billy draws near to Sylvia’s world, she does the same with his family. She becomes close with his mother and even his brother, showing to herself that she need not be defined by something she is missing. She starts to feel whole. 

“At first there is this sense of wholeness from meeting Billy,” says O’Shea. “He is just this sweet person who isn’t as wrapped up in the deaf community as most of the other people she knows.”

Billy, on the other hand, feels immediately at home in the deaf network. His family begins to feel threatened. “How can you have a personal identity while still being a part of a family as a whole?” says O’Shea. “Everyone is figuring out who their tribe is. That comes with choosing a community outside your family.” Walking the tightrope between the family one builds and that he or she is given remains a matter of constant tension throughout the play. 

The themes in the show are both relatable and controversial for many sectors of society. As Tribes takes on such delicate subjects, actors like Martin and O’Shea have to be throughly prepared. 

“From the time I was cast, I spent as much time as I could learning about the culture—reading about it, learning about it, watching TV shows about it, reading articles online,” says Martin. “It was completely fascinating. ... It opened my eyes to a whole different world that I never knew existed, at least in that capacity.”

Martin, a theater student at Purdue University, immediately went to an audiologist on campus who could guide him on how to approach his speaking lines. He and O’Shea underwent American Sign Language (ASL) instruction and engaged in many hours of research. 

“Sign is very cinematic,” says Martin. “With the way that the grammar works, they can use time and speed to craft stories. Zooming in or zooming out of the story, they are able to tell the story in slow motion or faster, all with their hands. ... They can tell great stories because they can be so specific about the entire picture.”

Nina Raine, the Tribes playwright, relays a similar brand of storytelling through Billy and Sylvia’s transformations in this local production of the play. The story hits close to home for both actors, and according to Martin, “The play shows the wonderful things that can happen when someone finds their voice.”


Tribes. Showtimes now through Feb. 9. Phoenix Theatre, 749 N. Park Ave, 317-635-7529. phoenixtheatre.org.