Last weekend, I made a quick trip to New York City to perform my one-man show, about life in middle age. Since I had a free day in the Big Appl—the show was happening on Sunday afternoon, and I arrived on Saturday— arranged to see a new off-Broadway play called Tribes, which got me thinking about my own tribes, where I fit and where I don’t.
I’d skimmed a recent review of the play in The New Yorker, which made it sound like a worthwhile way to spend a few hours on a cold, rainy afternoon. Since one of the main characters was an oral deaf man (who was raised to speak and lipread rather than use sign language), I thought of my uncle Jerry, who died when I was 18. My grandparents had raised Jerry to be as “normal” as possible, which meant giving him hundreds or thousands of hours of speech training, drilling him like a Marine Corps cadet. My grandparents’ need for my uncle to be normal, (like a hearing person), set him up for failure, frustration, and a life lived between two worlds, inhabiting neither.
During the first act of the play, the dysfunctional family at the heart of Tribes sat around the family dinner table, as the audience looked on from above. The upper-middle-class British family, consisted of the father—a retired English professor and writer—his harried wife, who was working on a detective novel and therefore taunted by her husband, and their three twenty-something children, two of whom were hearing, and one deaf.
None of the adult children seemed to be able to function outside of the family unit; instead they had failed relationships and moved back home. Their partners and ex-partners became grist for the family sport of mockery; outsiders were targeted for being fools or louts. Those inside the family were fair game too; the characters picked and jibed, rarely listening to each other.
Billy, the deaf son, was good-natured and patient, the one family member everyone seemed to like. He made small talk, smiled a lot, and tried to jump into the fray. But the words flew too fast, and his attempts to keep pace were futile. The dialogue was witty, fast-paced, and smart. The English accents, the actors talking over each other, their characters jockeying for attention, made me feel a bit like Billy as I strained to catch a punch line, a key phrase. Waves of laughter rolled through the audience while I sat and wondered what I’d missed.
Late in Act One, Billy meets a young woman named Sylvia who signs fluently. (Her parents are deaf.) Through her, Billy finds his voice (in sign), and eventually decides to stop communicating with his family until they learn sign language. After all the years of accommodating them and being the family “mascot,” Billy demands that they meet him on his terrain.
Meanwhile, Sylvia begins to lose her own hearing. As Billy and Sylvia signed together, captions were projected onto the walls of the small theatre. Yet I didn’t need those captions; I could follow the signs, sometimes more easily than I could capture the actors’ speech.
In the play, Sylvia mourned her loss. Though she could easily navigate the deaf world, she longed to hear music again, and to easily talk with hearing people and to hear them, rather than depend on lipreading. Her world was shrinking; as I sat there in that stuffy theater so was mine. Six years earlier, I’d suddenly lost most of the hearing in my left ear. Though I worked as a teacher of deaf children in my twenties and a sign language interpreter in my forties, I never thought that I would need a hearing aid or assistive devices. Over time, I’ve learned that one good ear cannot compensate for two—I have difficulty locating the source of sounds, following conversation in crowded restaurants, and screening out background noise.
Like the characters in the play, I swung between hearing and not hearing, using my vision, my rusty knowledge of American Sign Language and my good ear to piece together the themes interwoven into the play, themes I’m still digesting. As I age, I accumulate more experience, knowledge and wear and tear on my body. Adjustments must be made, appointments kept, parts serviced and replaced.
Sometimes I’m a hearing man who works in a quiet office, background music playing through my computer. Sometimes I am hard of hearing, sitting in a darkened theater, straining to catch each word, tone, phrase. I fold these changes into my life like the characters in Tribes—doing the best I can, which, sometimes, isn’t very good at all.
Judah Leblang is a writer and teacher in Boston, and the author of Finding My Place: One Man’s Journey from Cleveland to Boston and Beyond.