Tribes Actor Russell Harvard Finds His Pack

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06 May 2012

Russell Harvard
Russell Harvard
Photo by Monica Simoes

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."


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