When it comes to theatre company Pangdemonium, our expectations are always high. This time it’s Tribes, the story of a deaf boy raised in a hearing family
Tribes tackles disability — more specifically, deafness — in this family drama. The play's protagonist Billy (Thomas Pang) is a deaf boy raised to follow the hearing conventions of his family. The brash, politically incorrect father Christopher (Adrian Pang), the conciliatory mother Beth (Susan Tordoff), cocky brother (Gavin Yap), and fiery sister Ruth (Frances Lee) make for the most eccentric of combinations. None of them know sign language, and he struggles to keep up with their tirades by lip-reading.
The set is reminiscent of Next to Normal's — a play also staged by Pangdemonium in 2013. Decked out like an ordinary house, it incorporates subtitles for sign language on its walls and pieces of furniture, providing bubbles of subtext and comedy.
In his professional debut, Thomas subtly expresses the struggles Billy faces in communicating with his family. We see the growing frustrations of Billy amidst his family's loud, uncompromising arguments, and how they come to a head upon him meeting Sylvia (Ethel Yap). Ethel masterfully expresses Sylvia's depth of character, as the latter navigates her gradual but inevitable loss of hearing.
Going method clearly has its merits — Thomas and Ethel both took up sign language in preparation for their roles. Set against the context of Billy falling in with the deaf community and Sylvia falling out, the characters' relationship is one of volatile disintegration, with aches and uncertainties piercing through its initially rosy 'honeymoon period'.
Another show-stealer is Billy's brother Daniel. Gavin's portrayal of this sarcastic, raucous character had the audience in splits. Moments of raw insecurity seep through, when he experiences auditory hallucinations and starts to stammer. Gavin more than pulls off his character's descent from cocky older brother to a helpless child, yearning for his younger brother's attention.
Written by Nina Raine, the play paces itself well. Aside from searingly accurate commentary on the way hearing people see the deaf (and vice versa), the balance of comedy and drama in Tribes makes it a winner. Its comedic relief digs deeper, to expose the hidden selves of the characters when we least expect it.
An image that we're unlikely to forget occurs midway through the play: Sylvia plays the piano for Billy's family and they all stand around her and listen, but Billy stands alone, away from the group.
Tribes tells us a lot of things: about the isolation one can feel within their own family, the struggles of being deaf, and how every oddball is searching for their place to be heard. We heard it all, unspoken or not, and it has changed us for the better.
TRIBES plays at the Drama Centre Theatre till 7 June. Tickets are available from Sistic.