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Jane Enkin


by Jane Enkin, October 23, 2017

Tribes by

WJT at the Berney Theatre

Oct 21 thru 29 2017

Oct 26 show will be ASL interpreted


Tribes is an exciting show; I was deeply moved on opening night. The play concerns Billy, a young deaf adult, the hearing family he grew up in, and the deaf community he discovers, represented by Sylvia, the young woman he falls for.


Billy's family is loud, competitive, intellectual when they're not preoccupied with teasing or shouting at one another – actually much of the teasing and the passion is about the family's intellectual preoccupation with language and meaning. When Sylvia, the new girlfriend, first comes to dinner, she easily enters the exchange. Author Nina Rainehas created a set of characters who are all childlike in their unfiltered expression of ideas and emotions. Director Ari Weinberg has really let loose with this show – everyone is in motion, and talking over one another, with huge gestures and wacky behaviour,.


When we meet Billy, he is meek, bookish, only vaguely attempting to pick up by lipreading the storm of words around him. We quickly learn, though, that Billy is both as intellectually engaged and as passionate as the rest of the family to which he belongs.


Or does he? Is Billy one with this high-energy “tribe” or not? Is he the calm at the eye of the storm or merely peripheral?


Some of Raine's writing strained my belief. The father speaks coarsely with his adult children and his wife, and they often match his language, but I thought he would speak a bit more guardedly with a new girlfriend. I was surprised that the daughter, Ruth, was quite so transparent in showing her disappointment and envy. However, all the performances showed conviction, comedy and stern passion.


Terri Cherniack as Beth gives an strong performance as the least troubled, and likely sanest person on stage. She comes across as the empathic and caring mother, but Cherniack also revels in a fiery performance of impatience, anger and pride.


Arne MacPherson, the father Christopher, described his role to me as pure fun and he does seem to have a good time roaring outrageously and making everyone around him jump and rise to his baiting. He makes his noise all day, both when his convictions are seriously challenged and when he's messing with everyone's heads.


Paula Potosky delivers clearly the frustrations and enthusiasms of Ruth. It's hard to tell how old she's supposed to be, because Ruth so convincingly plays to her niche as the “little girl” of the family – she's at a beginning stage of a career, but Potosky makes it clear that she's expressing herself in ways she has since she was ten.


Ryan James Miller, as Dan, gives another one of his beautiful and nuanced performances as a man whose pain overwhelms him at the same time that his brother comes into his own. Miller is clenched, explosive, and operatically sorrowful.


Stephanie Sy is lovely as Sylvia, showing with poise and tenderness her many disturbing life-changes through the course of the play.


Jordan Sangalang, who plays Billy, is a fabulous actor. He gives so generously to the audience through shifts in posture and bearing, through the way he lasers his attention on the other actors, through his powerful voice and face and hands.


After the plot and characters are established, Raine explores more deeply her many themes of love and communication. Billy's brother Dan argues with their father about words: are they the only way to clarify to ourselves what we feel, or are they inadequate, imprecise, unable to carry the burden of meaning we expect from them? Does sign carry meaning in the way that spoken languages do?


At times, the audience hears the disturbing noise in the deaf character's heads. The effect is incredibly moving, as we are trained to empathize with these characters and with the frustrated people who whirl around them. Both the dialogue and the sound design make the occasional moments of silence intensely powerful.


Some scenes in the play are hard for the audience to catch, with overlapping voices and high energy. Along with the extraordinary sound design by Winnipeg-based musician Paul de Gurse, these hard-to-follow scenes also help audiences develop empathy with the deaf characters. Scenes entirely in sign language are interpreted on a screen for hearing audiences.


The costumes are fun and very true to each character. I don't love the giant ears that form the backdrop, (if you do, you can purchase one at the end of the run) but I do love the smooth transitions of Linda Beech's very open set.


Thursday, October 26's show will feature live ASL interpretation, and each run in the WJT season will include one sign-interpreted performance. It was really wonderful to be at the opening night, surrounded by enthusiastic signing audience members.


I spoke with a few people involved in the deaf-community aspect of the production. Sy had never signed before she prepared for this role. She was trained by Joanna Hawkins. As a deaf person who grew up in a hearing family and only learned sign later in childhood, Hawkins feels the show expresses some of her own experiences. Her husband, Johnny Hawkins, a fluent sign speaker whose parents are deaf, similarly found that the feelings of the character Sylvia, the hearing person in a deaf family, rang true. Sangalang's proud sister mentioned that her all-hearing family has to work hard to keep up with his fluent sign. And much to my surprise, Sangalang himself is not a strong lipreader. He had to learn cues without being able to follow all that was said on stage. This is also the experienced performer's first role with spoken lines, intended to be understood by a hearing audience, and he needed to learn projection skills– he laughed demonstrating his new deep breath technique after the show.


Tribes is highly recommended as theatre and as an introduction to a fascinating culture.


Jane Enkin Music and Story at


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