In the journey of raising a child with special needs, there is an importance to maintain a sense of normalcy. A child with special needs is not made to feel “different” by parents or family members. Rather, a child with special needs believing they can do what any other is able to do is empowering, and builds a “can-do” attitude within that child.
In Nina Raine’s critically acclaimed play “Tribes,” opening on April 16th at Berkeley Repertory Theatre and directed by Jonathan Moscone, Beth and Christopher certainly treat their youngest son Billy like any other. Billy is deaf from birth, yet there is no sign language for him. Only a steely determination for Jimmy to read lips and communicate like the hearing folks do is instilled in him from the get-go.
It is only when Billy meets Sylvia, who is considered a “CODA” (Child of deaf adults), that his belief system begins to shift. Sylvia is beginning to go deaf, and becomes adept at sign language, something Billy never engaged in. Through a woman who is transitioning from one world to another, it is where Billy begins to learn about identity, and what it means to forge one’s own away from the parental guidance he received for all the years prior.
Nell Geisslinger, who plays Sylvia, was able to make many discoveries about a completely foreign world, greatly assisted by Anthony Natale, the American Sign Language Consultant on the show. Natale’s expertise helped immensely the connection between Geisslinger and James Caverly, who is deaf and plays Billy. Geisslinger has spent the past four-plus months learning the nuances of sign language, a dialect that is filled with inherent beauty.
“Jonathan gave Anthony a lot of freedom to try different signs on the body, on the hand, on the face,” said Geisslinger. “Signing is highly personal, and Jonathan allowed me to do what I felt in the moment, and that’s very lovely.”
What was also lovely was the ability to have such powerful give and take with an actor who is deaf. This was a first in Geisslinger’s career, and the ability to work with, Natale, Caverly and Caverly’s translator Craig Fogel was something she felt helped her grow as an actor.
“Working with Joey is an absolute delight,” said Geisslinger. “His generosity, openness, willingness to play and simple eye contact go beyond verbal communication.”
The ability to work with such talented folks helped Geisslinger build her character in ways that went beyond sign language.
“(Sylvia) is an incredibly conflicted person, rooted and steeped in deaf culture,” said Geisslinger. “She values her hearing once she begins to lose it, and she is losing it while meeting a verbose, wonderful and colorful family who has very strong opinions.
“She comes to realize she shares or considers views of hearing families she meets and loves, and is pulled between two worlds.”
For Geisslinger, the learning curve on sign language was larger than she expected. She believed that mastery of her own language would guide her down a certain path. But even that was not completely accurate.
“I made certain assumptions about language and that signing had a grammatical structure to spoken English, but it doesn’t,” said Geisslinger. “It involves face much more than I thought it did. For someone who doesn’t sign fluently, there are really subtle differences. I am always making adjustments and will continue do so even after I open.”
The best actors are the ones that never stop learning, and always look to add more tools to their toolbox. To this end, Geisslinger feels the experience of doing this show has forever altered her path.
“I like to believe that I am actually really growing and changing because of this. I hope, which is not always the case, the new skills I am learning and am aware of will be a big help for me in the future.”
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
Berkeley Repertory Theatre presents “Tribes”
Written by Nina Raine
Directed by Jonathan Moscone
Through May 18th
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
2025 Addison Street @ Shattuck, Berkeley, CA 94704
Tickets range from $29 – $99
For tickets, call (510) 647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org