When I read in the Playbill for "Tribes" that the deaf star, Russell Harvard, profiled in this New York Times article, had attended Gallaudet University, I decided I wanted to try and tell him in person how much I was moved by his performance. It was raw and emotional...and I loved it. My only concern was that, although I studied American Sign Language at Gallaudet many years ago, my proficiency is hovering around nil due to disuse.
The production was intimately staged at The Barrow Street Theatre, with the audience surrounding the kitchen set of the family in the play (but does double duty when the action moves outside). A huge kitchen table dominated; the one meeting place where this dysfunctional family comes together to fight, love and live. The table provides a separation between the characters, reinforcing the emotional distance. The nature of the staging really made me feel as if I was sitting at the table with the family, being pummeled by the misunderstandings and accusations and barbs being hurled around. When I studied sign language in the 80s, I gained a great deal of insight into the issues faced by "mixed" families, with both hearing and hearing-impaired members. The clash of "cultures" can be confusing and painful. This play dealt with this so well, and Russell Harvard's "Billy" was accessible and vulnerable. This is complicated and fascinating subject matter and the cast, including Mare Winningham as the mother and Susan Pourfar as the young woman, born hearing to a deaf family but now losing her hearing, who both opens and closes doors for Billy, are all excellent.
I waited tentatively in the lobby after the show, wanting to meet Russell and Mare Winningham in particular (I've loved her work for a long time), but feeling a bit self-conscious as it looked as if it were mainly friends of the cast who had waited. I had brief conversations with several of the actors though; all very gracious and appreciative! Mare came out after a while and was also fun to chat with. We talked about the chemistry of the cast and how satisfying the story comes across. She mentioned that she loved this group of actors and that they hoped for a long run (as do I!!).
Finally Russell emerged and he was intercepted almost immediately by a couple that introduced themselves as friends of a director he'd worked with in the past. Russell was clearly pleased to see them, and it gave me the opportunity to get an idea of how much lip reading he was comfortable with, as the couple did not seem to know any sign language. There were some challenges as they all tried to understand each other; Russell speaks vocally, and is generally understandable, but it does take patience on everyone's part. I was quite impressed with how lovely he was about taking the time to have the conversation without any signing. When it was becoming clear that there were hiccups arising, I almost stepped in to offer to finger-spell (about all I can still do with any proficiency), but they ended their chat right about that time.
I then had the extreme honor and gift of an extended personal chat with Russell about the show (he loves doing this role), his time at Gallaudet and hopes for the future. When he found out I was from DC and had attended classes at Gallaudet, he told me how much he adored the city and misses it. We agreed that the area around Gallaudet has changed a great deal in just the past few years, and we think we might even have shared a professor (who's been at the university for many years). Russell was extremely patient with my attempts to use whatever signs I remembered, finger-spelling and, hopefully, speaking slowly enough (a challenge for me! :)) so that he could read my lips. I felt awkward and fumbling, but when he asked if he could give me a hug because he'd enjoyed our conversation so much, I was left so thankful that I had overcome my anxiety and had this special interaction.
There is a philosophy of communication that I learned about at Gallaudet called "total communication," i.e., using every possible means to communicate with someone who is hearing-impaired: speaking, signing, gesturing, etc. It's a philosophy that could be applied to any time we interact with someone. Being understood is a gift.
UPDATE Jan 31 '13: "Tribes" will be running at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles from Feb 27 - Apr 14 '13 with several of the original cast members, including Russell Harvard, Will Brill (who plays Daniel, Billy's troubled brother) and Susan Pourfar.
Stage Door Tales
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