Tribes Actor Russell Harvard Finds His Pack

By Adam Hetrick
May 6, 2012

At the center of David Cromer's in-the-round staging of Nina Raine's acclaimed drama Tribes is a large dining table where family members shout over one another in a battle for understanding.



On the periphery of the cacophony is Billy, the youngest member of the clan, who is deaf. While he has a place at the table, Billy struggles to keep up with his dysfunctional tribe when verbal battles ensue – he was taught to read lips and to speak instead of using sign language to communicate.

Whether that choice was empowering or crushing is what audiences get to decide during Cromer's pitch-perfect production at the Barrow Street Theatre.

Actor Russell Harvard has garnered praise for his performance as Billy, including the Drama League, Outer Critics Circle and Lucille Lortel Award nominations this season.

"My first reaction was that Billy and I are not alike at all," Harvard says. "My family is deaf and our mode of communication is American Sign Language."

Harvard, who has partial hearing and also reads lips and speaks, became closer to the character throughout the rehearsal process. While he was provided an American Sign Language interpreter in rehearsals, "there were times I missed things, so I thought that might be how Billy felt," he says. "It's hard and the conversation happens so fast. I can't ask everyone to repeat everything."

The U.K.-set play has struck a chord with audiences and critics, including members of the deaf community. "Some people come up to me and say, 'That's exactly the way I felt.' I'm so glad this play is teaching people that they can have two modes of communication. Why not be bilingual?," Harvard says of Billy's use of both speech and sign language.

It isn't until Billy encounters a young woman from a deaf family, who is gradually losing her own hearing, that the culturally rich world of the deaf community opens up to him. Harvard credits Raine with doing her homework, pointing out her accurate portrayal of the deaf community. "It's very truthful," he says. "I am surprised and very happy that Nina caught that and explained it very well. There's a hierarchy, and it's true. I've been there before."

Harvard in Tribes.
photo by Gregory Costanzo

He is also perfecting a British accent for Tribes. Working with a dialect coach and watching movies has helped – Russell cites the "Harry Potter" films, but it's been an ongoing process. "There was a line where I realized it's 'togetha,'" he says. "I'm still discovering some moments where I think, "Oh, that is how you say that!"

As Billy learns to sign – establishing his own place within the deaf community apart from his family – he begins to resent his first tribe for never returning the favor and learning to use sign language to connect with him. "At first, I thought why did he wait so long to realize that his mode of communication, that speaking didn't really work for him?," Harvard says. "Why wait so long if you feel something is missing? I have to get that information and know what everyone is saying, but there are people out there like that."

Casting Billy was challenging for Cromer and his team, who had been searching for the right actor for some time. The production team asked to see a screening of Harvard's award-winning 2010 film "The Hammer," which was enough to have them fly him from his home in Austin, TX, to audition in New York, where he nabbed the role.

"I did not see this coming," Harvard says of the response to Tribes, which continues to sell out performances on a regular basis. "When I read it the first time, I didn't pick up on funny how it was. But as I read it more and we rehearsed, I it really struck me."

Tribes was originally scheduled to end its run in June, but producers extended the production through September. Harvard, who says he'll return to Austin unless other work comes his way, smiles recalling an encounter with a woman he purchased a microwave from on Craigslist when he first arrived in New York.

"After I left, she texted me and said, 'Have fun in the city, it's rad.'" With three award nominations under his belt and Tribes leading the pack as the most-nominated Off-Broadway play of the season, Harvard laughs, "She was right, it really is."