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The Sunday Conversation

'Tribes' star Russell Harvard talks deaf community culture

The star of 'Tribes' at the Mark Taper Forum talks about how deaf and hard-of-hearing children are raised, the importance of American Sign Language, lip-reading and new technology such as cochlear implants, and fear of losing deaf community culture.

April 07, 2013|By Irene Lacher
  • Russell Harvard at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.
Russell Harvard at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. (Katie Falkenberg, Los Angeles…)

Russell Harvard plays the deaf brother in a dysfunctional family in "Tribes" at the Mark Taper Forum through April 14. The Austin, Texas-based actor, who won a Drama League Award for the role off-Broadway, will move with the production to the La Jolla Playhouse from June 25 through July 21. He spoke in his Taper dressing room.

FULL COVERAGE: 2013 Spring arts preview

Do you feel sympathetic to your character, who feels marginalized because he's deaf?

I do, but not with my family. With my family, we all speak the same language.

Your parents are deaf, so what do you speak at home?

ASL [American Sign Language]. The funny thing is my mom decided to send me to an oral school [for deaf children who learn to lip-read] because of my ability to speak. My aunt is hard of hearing, so when I was a kid, she'd get me to speak and realized I could hear a little bit. But I was not happy there. I remember crying and not wanting to go. They wouldn't let you sign at all, and you would have to speak all the time. It didn't feel right. My mom took me to a deaf school [that used ASL], and I was happy.

The play explores the debate between signing and lip-reading. Where do you stand?

My nephew is the fourth-generation [deaf relative]. He's 2 years old. I told my sister-in-law I think that maybe Rex, my nephew, should get a hearing aid and be able to practice speaking because I think he can hear a little bit and I don't want him to be behind. I want him to have the best of both worlds. I think to have both would be good, but I use ASL very frequently.

I got the sense that there's a political aspect to the debate, that it isn't only about what feels right but that sign language is considered by some the morally correct way to go.

Hearing parents with a deaf child would rather go in the direction of lips. [Or] Cochlear implants, and then the child would hear them.

To be like them.

Yeah. I wanted a cochlear implant. Before, I was totally against it.

It might sound funny, but I'm afraid that in the future, the deaf community culture would be extinct because technology is taking over and there would be no more deaf people. In the future, genetic engineering, cochlear implants, the language will be forgotten — I was really terrified of that.

Why is it important to keep the deaf community's status quo rather than enhance any hearing ability they may have?

It's a sense of belonging. It's where I feel comfortable, and to lose that is scary. I feel safe with that.

So it sounds like you were concerned about losing your tribe in your own life. You have some limited hearing?

I have some vestigial hearing. I can hear music, I can hear cues [onstage].

I've read that you perform music at deaf cultural events. How do you perform it, and how does the audience appreciate it?

Through their eyes. I read song lyrics to find out whether they're good songs to translate into American Sign Language. I perform with my body language, sometimes I do some kind of dance. We made some music videos that are on YouTube. I made one in New York City on the subway at 2 a.m.

Your girlfriend in "Tribes," Sylvia, talks about the hierarchical nature of deaf society. What's that about?

For example, me coming from a deaf family — I'm on the top. We're proud of our language, our culture, our arts. Then there's the deaf child of hearing parents. He may not have the signing skill because the parents want him to [read lips] and they put him in a deaf school late. And another child coming from a deaf family who signs well, they probably wouldn't interact. If I'm at Gallaudet University [for the deaf and hard of hearing] and I'm talking on my phone, they'd be like, "Why are you talking on your cellphone on campus? Don't do that." They know I'm from a deaf family, and we have that bond, and they're saying, "I can't understand what you're saying, and you're doing it in front of me." That's a little bit offensive to them, and I have to be careful. I don't do that on campus.

I think it's interesting that some deaf people think the greatest good is to be as deaf as possible. Maybe that's a reaction to the negative judgments they perceive from hearing people — for them it's super-positive because hearing people think deafness is negative. I was also surprised to learn in the play that ASL has its own grammar.

And surprisingly, I don't know it. I've never taken an ASL class. But usually in ASL, you can break rules and play with words. Like Sylvia says [in the play], "'Who's that man?' You change it to 'that man, who?'" I had my friend tell me I should take ASL, because it's my language. I should know the grammar to my own language.

When you played Daniel Day-Lewis' character's son in "There Will Be Blood," which takes place a century ago, you had to learn a less evolved form of sign language?

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