Any student of literature would immediately be tuned in to the themes of family and/or society upon hearing the title “Tribes”. It’s so freaky how instinctive that has become. But what’s more glaringly obvious from the poster is, obviously, the sign language.
Billy, played by Thomas Pang (second from the right), is the darling of the family, partially because he’s the youngest, but also because, well, he’s deaf. In a crazy family where everyone’s voice drowns out everyone else’s, Billy’s disposition leads him to be the sweet and sensitive listener.
However, all that changes when he falls in love with Sylvia, played by Ethel Yap (extreme right) – his world is changed and he finally wants his voice to be heard.
We have high hopes for this play that’s been described by Wall Street Journal as “The best-written, best-plotted, deepest, most daring, and funniest new play in recent years.” With a focus on family, love, and identity, this play promises to deliver an ear-shattering, heart-breaking message that actions do speak louder than words.
Since I wasn’t able to find a lot of information on Pangdemonium’s Tribes, I was super excited to have gotten the chance to sit down to talk to Thomas Pang and Ethel Yap, who play Billy and Sylvia respectively.
TSL: Tell me more about Billy and Sylvia’s families!
Thomas: In my family, everyone is quirky and unique, um, I guess it’s like an exaggeration of any other family. Everyone has strong opinions and stuff but this family, in particular, prizes debate and argument above all other things, so their main form of communication is argument. What that reveals is the nature of the English language – that it’s so caught up with grammar and semantics and it’s so easy to pull apart.
Ethel: Sylvia’s family is the opposite of Billy’s. Her parents are deaf and she’s the only hearing one. Her family probably has many interesting and fulfilling conversations but I don’t think they were always trying to win each other. In that sense, Sylvia’s probably had a bit more balance because her parents are more peaceful.
There’s definitely an aspect of what’s considered rude and what’s considered polite and when she meets Billy’s family, she realises for that them there is no difference between rude and polite. Everything is on the table so it does stun her a bit but because she’s smart and she can carry herself well, she’s able to counter that and not crumble.
TSL: How do you find learning sign language?
Thomas: We’ve been learning since January so like 3, 4 months I think? I can follow some of a conversation, maybe like 10%. The way people sign is actually really really really fast even our teacher isn’t at the level of people who were born signing because she learned later on.
TSL: What’s the most embarrassing thing that’s happened in sign class?
Thomas: (laughs) Yeah, they won’t let me forget this one. I have this line in sign that goes, “well they’ve come to the wrong place, haven’t they?” but I did “well they’ve come to the wrong place, haven’t they (with an exaggerated head shake)”, which means “they’ve come to the wrong place, Indian.”
My sign teacher started laughing and they all make fun of me for that. So now when we get to that scene they all just burst out laughing.
Ethel: He’s so funny! He still does it, by the way! Every time he does that line me and Lily (the teacher) laugh because of the funny memory, but the other day it looked like he did it again, but maybe it wasn’t so exaggerated lah, just a bit.
Thomas: Yeah, that’s the most awkward thing but besides that there are graphic gestures… and you really gotta get into it, because when you’re deaf and you wanna tell a story, what you wanna do is portray everything. It’s got to be loud and bold because what they’re reading are the visual cues. There’s no being subtle about it.
TSL: Okay, I wanna hear the gossip! What does their relationship bring to the table?
Thomas: It kind of opens Billy up. He’s experienced familial love but they treat him like a child the entire time. I mean, just even during rehearsals, the feelings that I’m going through as Billy, it’s just really really… lonely. There’s a whole lot of conversations that they just don’t include me in.
They don’t feel that I’ll be able to understand or maybe it’s not even that they don’t feel that i’m not gonna understand, it’s that they don’t want to take the time to explain everything to me because I’m deaf.
Ethel: I think the identity wall within her between the hearing side of her life and the deaf side of her life always pulls her back. At the point in which the play is set, she’s at a point where, because she’s grown up around deaf people (her parents), she’s very much a part of the deaf community. But she’s become quite tired and weary of it because as much as she sees and cherishes this community, it’s become a bit small for her.
She longs to do more see more meet more different types of people but she just keeps being pulled back into the deaf world. So, interestingly, Billy is someone who once again pulls her back into the deaf world and at the same time because his family is hearing, a small door has been opened there as well.
Thomas: Yeah, and there’s a part of him that’s suddenly being talked to in his heart and in his naughty bits.
Okay we might as well tell you, this isn’t in the play, it’s just a backstory we’ve created for ourselves. In college, Billy had a relationship with girl who was hearing. At first she didn’t know he was deaf because he could lip read so well, but then she found out because the way he speaks is different. Anyway, they did it one night and he was really happy but then the next morning, or the next week, she wouldn’t call him or see him again because she didn’t want to be the girl dating the deaf boy.
So that kind of jaded him towards that then all of a sudden he meets Sylvia at an art gallery. Oh, this actually happened, by the way, I meet her at an art gallery and she’s like “oh my god I can’t believe you’re deaf” and he’s “like yeah I’m deaf” and she’s like “I’m going deaf” and I’m like “oh I can’t believe you’re going deaf” and we have this whole connection.
Ethel: Yeah! We’re converging at a certain point but then, you know, after that they might head in different directions. Who knows what’ll happen after that.
TSL: How has your understanding of the deaf community changed since working on the play?
Thomas: Before, I saw it as a disability, a marginalised group of people, but now, more than anything, I’m just frustrated that I haven’t had this conversation earlier. That the hearing community is not aware of their responsibility towards the deaf community because it’s like being trapped in a glass box where everyone around you is just walking around and you can’t really express what you feel or what you want to say.
There’s no way you can tell if someone is deaf. So, say they work 9-to-5 jobs and they do their work really well, maybe the person next to you at your job you never to talk who is just really really really silent all day. And you say, okay, you know he’s a hard worker. But what they’re doing is that, essentially, they bottle up everything they need to say, and that’s what I’m experiencing right now in the rehearsals. It is really exhausting because there’s so many things that you wanna say.
When you talk you’re venting. Essentially you’re giving the thoughts in your mind a chance to express themselves, so there’s a build-up then a release, a build-up then a release. But if you don’t have that kind of vent how else do you release all those words? So then they work 9-to-5 then go out to meet their friends and Ethel says they just talk talk talk talk talk.
Ethel: They just explode on the weekends.
Ethel: They’re also visually wired because they rely less on their hearing they rely a lot more on what they see, so you know they can like read facial expressions and body language and things like that a lot better than a hearing person would. So, yeah, quite interesting!
For me, I never really thought even about anything related to deafness very much at all until we started work on this so it was kind of like from a place of 0 knowledge and 0 information to reading a lot and suddenly becoming so informed. There’s a huge admiration for the deaf because you know how hard they have to work to be on par with everyone else.
Thomas: It’s also made me a better actor because now my hand gestures are way more specific super conscious about that.
TSL: Okay, I’ve never heard of or seen anything like this – how are the sign language interpreters going to be doing their thing?
Thomas: They have interpreters. On. The. Stage. So while we’re doing all the action they’re signing in the back.
Ethel: We were shown the set design sketches and it looks amazing. It’s really cool that the interpreters are on stage so it’s like they’re either a part of the set or the’re characters themselves. It’s quite cool actually. And so much of the dialogue is crazy fast, especially between the mom and dad. (Thomas: Yeah they’re really fast) They’re really fast, spelling is crazy.
Thomas: Yeah spelling is the worst like names: (both Thomas and Ethel start signing) C, H, E, R, Y, L, but they do it really fast.
Ethel: There’s a sign for name but you have to spell out your actual name. So in lines of dialogue where there are names or character references they have to spell it out. Spelling’s tough.
TSL: Is there a clear transition, for Billy, from someone who listens to someone who speaks? And what does he have to say?
Ethel: I don’t think we can say exactly how, but definitely yes. There is a point.
Thomas: This is the first time I’ve been so protective of a story (Ethel: Yeah!) Like oftentimes when people ask me about the story, I have no problem telling them the end and everything. This is the first time i’m being so protective because I feel like this is something that needs to be witnessed it’s something that needs to be seen.
Ethel: Yeah you have to experience it! Billy has a lot to say, actually.
Thomas: Yeah but us telling you would defeat the purpose, you have to come see the play.
Experience what Billy has to say!
Shows are happening from 22 May – 7 June 2015 at the Drama Centre Theatre.
Preview (22 May): 8PM $30, $40, $50
Sunday/Tuesday-Thursday/Saturday-Sunday Matinee: 3PM & 8PM $40, $50, $60
Friday/Saturday: 8PM $50, $60, $70
Discounts (not applicable for Preview)
- Students – 25% off all categories (Tuesdays only)
- Seniors (55 years and above) – 25% off all categories (Wednesdays only)
Special Performances* (with Singaporean Sign Language interpreters on stage)
- Saturday 23 May, 8PM
- Wednesday 27 May, 8PM
- Saturday 30 May, 8PM
- Wednesday 3 June, 8PM
- Saturday 6 June, 8PM
*Hearing impaired receive 50% off Cat 1 tickets (front section)! Click here to find out more.
Advisory 16: Coarse language
This post was brought to you by Pangdemonium.