Skip to content

Communicating outside the circle in “Tribes”

By Ed Forry, August 30, 2013

By R. J. Donovan
Special To The BIR
Whether it’s family or church or the clique we cluster with at the office, we all belong to one group or another that imposes its own rules and rituals upon us. That’s the concept at the very heart of “Tribes,” Nina Raine’s acclaimed dark comedy that won the 2012 Drama Desk Award for Best New Play.

Having had its world premiere at London’s Royal Court Theater in 2010, “Tribes” takes a look at Billy, a young deaf man from a Jewish family who’s described as having been “raised inside the unrepentantly politically incorrect cocoon of his parent’s house. He has adapted brilliantly to his hearing family’s unconventional ways, but they’ve never bothered to return the favor.” When he begins a relationship with a hearing woman who was born to deaf parents and is now going deaf herself, he not only rocks the boat but he also sees just how silent his own annoyingly academic family has been to his needs.
SpeakEasy Stage Company is kicking off its fall season with “Tribes,” as directed by M. Bevin O’Gara, who scored a major success last season at SpeakEasy with “Clybourne Park.” Tracing her own family’s roots back to Cork and Sligo, Bevin is a Long Island transplant who earned her BFA in Theatre Studies at Boston University. As a student, she interned at The Huntington Theatre, where she now serves as associate producer.
Among her many credits, she has directed productions at New Rep, Company One, Central Square Theatre, Boston Playwrights’ Theatre and the Williamstown Theatre Festival Workshop. We spoke recently prior to rehearsals. Here’s an edited look at our conversation.
BIR: Boston is quite a diverse theater town, isn’t it.
BO: I love this community. I love the people who are here. There’s such a list of actors, of designers, of companies that I am really dying to work with. Each year that list seems to grow.
BIR: “Tribes” is about a deaf character, but this isn’t the first time you’ve directed within so specific a topic.
BO: I did a play called “Love Person” a couple of years ago with Company One, which was performed in sign language, English, e-mail and Sanskrit – four different languages at (different) points in the play. It had one deaf actress, who had an interpreter. I became very friendly with my lighting designer, who is deaf and (I became) very involved within the deaf community.
BIR: So did Paul Daigneault (Artistic Director at SpeakEasy) add “Tribes” to his season with you in mind?
BIR: I was actually very surprised when Paul offered it to me. I knew how much he loved the play and I thought he was really going to want to do it himself. But he knew that I had that background . . . and he asked me, based on that background, to be involved in the show . . . I saw the very, very first preview of the show in New York and just absolutely fell in love with it. I couldn’t have been happier when he asked me to do it.
BIR: “Tribes” shows, in a rather commanding way, how quarantined people can become.
BO: It’s really about that “insular-ness” that any group’s people can create. Whether that’s the deaf community or a family. This family has sort of put up these walls around each other. They’re very insulated – not isolated, it’s insulation – from anything that is other than them.
BIR: And the family becomes seriously threatened when Billy finds a connection beyond their ranks.
BO: That’s really where the title comes from – the idea of territoriality of people. When the deaf son starts a relationship outside of the family, the oldest brother becomes completely territorial about his brother. Why does one person have to displace someone else from your life, and how that becomes ruinous to a clan or a group of people when someone on the outside infiltrates.
BIR: And Billy is not presented as a sweet cliché by the playwright.
BO: Exactly. That’s one of the most beautifully crafted things about the play. That’s how everyone sees him – he’s the sweet one that the whole family loves. But ultimately, what you learn in the end of the play is that he’s just as self-absorbed, or self motivated, as the rest of the family. And [that] deaf people can be anything – can be everything. That’s one of the important things that the play is really saying.
BIR: As in the Broadway production, the actor playing Billy at SpeakEasy is deaf himself.
BO: James Caverly – he just graduated from Gallaudet University, which is the big university for the deaf community. So he’s fluent in sign. And then [Erica Spyres] the young girl who’s playing opposite him as the woman going deaf is actually learning sign this summer . . . She also has to learn piano for this part. So she’s busy [laughs].
BIR: I understand you spent quite a bit of time at the Gaiety Theatre of Dublin when you were in college.
BO: Yes. They do this really incredible summer program where college kids from America come over for two months. Basically it’s scene study. You’re spending most of your mornings either in scene study class or in an Irish literature class . . . reading plays, learning about all the Irish playwrights, and then you spend the afternoon doing cultural visits . . . then in the evenings go see a show . . . it was really intensive.
BIR: Was there time to do a little independent exploring?
BO: I chose to stay there for about a week and a half after, and my father came over and we did a whole tour. We did the ring of Kerry and went down to Cork and then back up to Dublin. I took a trip myself up to Belfast just to see as much as I could while I was over there. I see a lot of theater, but I’ve never seen quite as much theater as I did in (my) time there.
BIR: After “Tribes,” you’re next assignment is directing Melinda Lopez’s new play, “Becoming Cuba,” at the Huntington.
BO: One of my first big, professional breaks was her production of “Gary” at Boston Playwrights Theatre . . . [“Becoming Cuba”] is such a beautiful play and a really interesting story. It’s the right time to be telling it and the right time for me, I guess . . . I’ve got a good year.

R. J. Donovan is Editor and Publisher of

“Tribes,” from SpeakEasy Stage Company, Sept. 13-Oct. 12 at the Calderwood Pavilion, 539 Tremont Street in Boston. (ASL-interpreted performances on Oct. 6 & 11.) Info: 617-933-8600 or