Roxanne Baker of Cape Elizabeth was born deaf into a hearing family, but wasn’t diagnosed as deaf until she was 3.
She tried to read lips and muddle along until she was about 8, then went to the Governor Baxter School for the Deaf in Falmouth. It was the first time she had met other deaf youngsters.
“I felt like a flower that finally has blossomed,” wrote Baker, 54, in an email. “It felt right at home for me … it is like I found my own tribe.”
That sense of belonging is a central theme in the current Portland Stage production “Tribes,” written by the English playwright Nina Raine. It’s about a young man who was born deaf to a hearing family, and his ongoing struggle to be heard and to belong. It opened on Friday and runs through April 13.
Members of the deaf community in Greater Portland are eager to see the play, hoping it will shed some light on a world that most hearing people know little about.
Baker has already seen it, in New York City, and plans to see it in Portland as well. She thinks the theme of wanting to belong will resonate with many deaf people, specifically the idea of “finding a tribe of our own other than (the one) we were born into.”
She also hopes it might help hearing people understand how deaf people view themselves.
“We do not wish to be carbon copies of hearing people,” wrote Baker, an American Sign Language instructor, in her email. “To many of us, being deaf is a blessing as we have a clear sense of identity as culturally deaf people using American Sign Language as our national language.”
In “Tribes,” Billy is a young deaf man born into a hearing, and extremely verbose and argumentative, family. In early scenes, family members have long, loud and profanity-laced discussions of literature, philosophy or sex. Billy, who has tried to manage by reading lips and speaking as best he can, constantly asks what they just said. He often gives up when he gets only terse answers.
Then, Billy meets Sylvia (played by Kate Finch, who is fluent in American Sign Language), a young woman from a deaf family who was born with hearing. But she is going deaf.
Sylvia knows sign language and is much more aware of the nuances of deaf culture than Billy. He falls for Sylvia, at least partly because she introduces him to sign language and the possibility of being heard much more clearly and definitively.
Billy’s family is suspicious of Sylvia. His father says that deaf people who sign and “go to deaf events” are like “a cult.”
In a dramatic scene in which Billy is signing and Sylvia is interpreting to his family, Billy blasts his family for not caring more about his needs.
Garrett Zuercher, 33, who plays Billy, shares some of his own story with the character. He was born deaf into a hearing family, and didn’t start using sign language until he was an adult. He said the play talks about deaf culture, and might expose some surprising things to a hearing audience, like the hierarchies within deaf culture.
But he thinks the play’s overall message is much broader.
“There’s definitely a hierarchy,” he said, signing his answers to interpreter Nick Dionne at Portland Stage on Thursday. “At the very top would be ‘deaf of deaf,’ or deaf people born to deaf families, then below that are those who grew up signing, and I’d be a level below that, because I didn’t learn sign language until later on.
“Deaf people are blunt,” he said, “and they are that way to help each other, because they don’t get that help from hearing people. But I think the bigger theme of this show is community and wanting to belong.”
The play uses super titles, printed overhead, at times to tell the audience what’s being signed or what Billy is saying. At other times, there are no titles, which conveys a sense of how even characters who can hear one another aren’t really understanding each other.
“I think deafness in the play is a metaphor for our inability to always be heard, our desire to be heard,” said the director, Chris Grabowski, a drama professor at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. “It’s about having a biological family and a chosen family.”
Brenda Schertz, who was born deaf to deaf parents, is one of the many deaf people in Maine who plan to see “Tribes” at an American Sign Language-interpreted performance. She refers to herself as “Deaf with a capital D” because she is culturally deaf.
Though she hasn’t seen the play, she knows about the scene in which Billy gets angry at his family for not learning sign language. She said that scene rings true for many deaf people.
Schertz, who is a lecturer in the linguistics department at the University of Southern Maine, said the message of community in “Tribes” is also valid. Deaf people gravitate to other deaf people, not just to be heard more clearly, but to be part of a community.
“We have a sense of belonging to a group sharing the same values, beliefs and especially language,” Schertz, 50, wrote in an email.
Zuercher, who grew up in Wisconsin and has acted in plays and on the NBC show “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” said his exposure to deaf culture was slowed by his own actions. He said his family wanted to learn sign language when he was young, but he didn’t.
“I was embarrassed, I thought learning (sign language) would draw more attention to my being deaf,” said Zuercher, through Dionne. “But now I regret that.”
Once he learned sign language, he said, it opened up another world to him, another “tribe” so to speak. His family was suddenly shut out of a part of his world because they didn’t sign. But tribes don’t have to be closed-door clubs. “So after seeing the play, my father, at 60, is learning ASL,” Zuercher said.
Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at: