Tribes Star Russell Harvard on His Deaf Heritage and Joining a New Off-Broadway Family

Tribes Star Russell Harvard on His Deaf Heritage and Joining a New
Off-Broadway Family

By Russell Harvard

March 13, 2012

I first read Nina Raine’s Tribes several months ago and was drawn to
the character of Billy for many reasons. We are vastly different
people, but we have a common and familiar foundation. Billy was born
deaf, and so was I—but unlike Billy, I come from a deaf family. My
mother, like Billy, was born deaf and raised by a hearing family. And
similarly, my mother didn’t learn American Sign Language (ASL) until
the age of six, when my grandmother enrolled her in the Texas School
for the Deaf (TSD). It was there that she met my father, who was born
to deaf parents. They both graduated from TSD and I’m proud to say I’m
the third deaf generation, as well as the third generation of TSD
alumni in my family. My mother’s story is a lot like Billy’s—because of
her personal history, I understand him, who he is, and who he hopes to

This understanding of Billy’s background allowed me to fall into
character surprisingly smoothly: I became Billy in an instant on the
first day of rehearsal. Those first rehearsals were slightly
frustrating because I crave to absorb and understand everything that is
happening in the room, but there were so many overlapping conversations
that it was hard to pick everything up.

That first rehearsal experience was reminiscent of a surreal obstacle I
faced in 2004 when I traveled to Amsterdam with a deaf performing
troupe from Washington, D.C. We were invited to a huge deaf
international party at a nightclub 40 kilometers away. Two co-workers
and I decided to attend the party, while the rest decided to hit the
hay—but I didn’t know what I was about to get myself into. When we
entered the club, I saw that signing was the mode of communication most
people were using, but I couldn’t understand what anyone was saying.
There were as many as five different languages in sign happening in
front of my eyes. My co-workers disappeared into the crowd and I found
myself frustrated that I couldn’t understand what people were saying.

Luckily, I ran into a friend from Gallaudet University, and he
translated for me. Later that night, he told me that to communicate
more efficiently I should learn International Signs. When I returned to
school the following semester, I registered for a Visual Gesture
Communication course. The class opened my eyes to the fact that
communication is possible through gesture and that a specific language
isn’t necessary. Go figure!

The skills I acquired in the visual gesture course have helped me
navigate situations in which communication was an obstacle, which came
into play throughout the rehearsal process for Tribes. Now, it would be
far out if my Android phone had an app that could translate English
speaking to English text! That would revolutionize my life. I’d like to
eavesdrop on a conversation in the subway or listen in on my fellow
cast members in the dressing room next to mine.

Everyone at the Barrow Street Theatre has made me feel very welcome,
and life in NYC is rad! My co-stars and stage crew members are learning
ASL, and it brings me a great deal of joy to see them simply trying to
sign (speak) my language. I am grateful to the writer, director and
producers for giving me an opportunity to show my work in this
unforgettable production.

About the Author:

Russell Harvard may be making his off-Broadway debut in Tribes at the
Barrow Street Theatre, but this talented New York newcomer is no
show-biz rookie. On film, Harvard is best known for his portrayal of
the adult H.W. Plainview in There Will Be Blood and wrestler Matt
Hamill in The Hammer. In Tribes, Harvard stars as Billy, a deaf
twenty-something who struggles to be heard in an outspoken hearing
family. When Billy learns sign language and finally finds his voice,
his relationship with his self-involved parents and siblings is turned
on its head. Below, Harvard writes of his experiences as a deaf actor,
the limitations of American Sign Language, and his idea for a new way
to communicate with (or play pranks on!) his hearing friends.


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