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  • Writer's pictureRichard Costes

On TCR and the Casting of a Hearing Actor as Billy in Nina Raine’s TRIBES

I wrote this email to Theatre Cedar Rapids on my lunch break. I thought I’d post it here for all to read:

Hi Leslie, Casey, and the entire TCR team,

A bit about me first – I am deaf (not Deaf) and was raised in the same environment as Billy where Deafness and ASL/BSL was looked down upon. I’m also an actor and director based out of Chicago. I wanted to put this all out in the open first so that you would see where I was coming from – as someone who was born deaf, was alienated from his culture for many years, and has been working in theatre since he was a child.

So let me start out by saying: I get it. I get it. I’ve been to community theatres and I’ve worked in them and I understand the desire to cast from local communities and the reluctance to hire out of town actors. And that's admirable. And I also understand the need to defend the theatre and the artistic team involved – especially in light of controversy. We’ve had our own controversy here in Chicago (Porchlight Music Theatre casting a white man as the lead in IN THE HEIGHTS) that I'll touch on in a bit.

But here is the crux of my belief - the casting of Billy is ethically wrong.

There’s a level of culture-blindness that comes from the hearing community towards the Deaf community and it is evident in this casting decision. It wasn’t intentional, I’m sure. So please just take this as a learning opportunity. I’ll begin with a rhetorical question:

If TCR wanted to put on OTHELLO or FENCES but no actors of color showed up for the role, would they still put it on and dress up a white actor in blackface?

I don't believe you would - I don't think any theatre would. We all recognize that blackface it is ethically wrong. But here - the hearing community celebrates the actor for taking on a difficult role and "learning" a new language. I call it "cripping up" - and to me it is no better than black or yellowface.

For some reason - with shows like TRIBES or CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD or THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER there seems to be this disregard of the culture, the environment, and - yes - the language that only a Deaf actor could fully embrace.

I saw TRIBES at Steppenwolf with John McGinty in the lead role and - for me - as a deaf man who was brought up in the same environment that Billy was - there was a moment early in the show that brought me to tears. My friend, who is hearing looked at me in confusion as it wasn't a "sad" moment. It was simply a moment where I looked onstage and went: "That's me. That's my life. That's exactly how I feel when I am in this situation." And the only possible way the actor could have known to play that moment in that way is if he had experienced it too. It was a completely understated moment and only John or an actor of similar experiences would have found it.

This was the kitchen scene when Billy asks what’s going on and his family dismissed his desire to be a part of the conversation. I know many great hearing actors and any of them would have done amazing as Billy. But we both know theatre isn’t about the big moments – it’s the small moments, the blink and miss ones, the ones where you see a flicker of something in the actor’s eyes that shows that they know.

I’m sure the actor you have cast as Billy is wonderful – but I am also equally sure that moments like that, and the other moments peppered through TRIBES that are ripe for a skilled d/Deaf actor to take and play with in a way that a hearing actor could only dream of.

Beyond the innate cultural knowledge that TCR is losing out on - there is also a tremendous educational opportunity that is lost. There is a lot that hearing actors could learn from d/Deaf actors. TCR had a wonderful opportunity to really do some community outreach - not to better the Deaf community but to learn from them. I do not like the argument you presented: “Or is it more valuable to do the play with the actors available so that we can talk about the issues confronting the deaf community?”

This argument is a privileged argument. We wouldn’t try to have a debate on feminism or racial inequality without a woman or a person of color in the room, so why would we attempt to discuss these issues without a Deaf person inhabiting the role of Billy? How can you have a talkback about these issues at a post-show discussion without anyone in the cast having experienced them? In addition - it doesn't surprise me that the Deaf community did not come out to audition - I went to TCR’s website and saw no mention of any performances of THE FLICK, SISTER ACT, or any show being ASL interpreted or captioned. I did not even see any mention of these services being offered for TRIBES. There was mention of devices to assist people with hearing loss – but for the majority of the community (myself included) this is ineffective. So, my question would be - why WOULD a Deaf actor come out to a theatre that, so far, has offered little in the way of accessibility?

Quiara Alegria Hudes, co-author of IN THE HEIGHTS with Lin-Manuel Miranda, said recently of the casting decision of Porchlight:

"The fact is that creating true artistic diversity often takes hard work. Concerted, extra effort. It takes time and money. You cannot just put out a casting call and hope people come and then shrug if they don't show up. You may need to add extra casting calls (I do this all the time), to go do outreach in communities you haven't worked with before. You may need to reach out to the Latino theaters and artists and build partnerships to share resources and infor

mation. You may need to fly in actors from out of town if you've exhausted local avenues, and house them during the run. When faced with these expensive obstacles, an organization's status quo sometimes wins because it's cheaper and less trouble. The Latino community has the right to be disappointed and depressed that an opportunity like this was lost. It can be very disheartening, as an artist and as an audience member."

You can read her full statement here – it’s well worth the read:

If TCR wanted the support of the Deaf community they would have begun a campaign to incorporate accessibility from the moment the literary manager first read TRIBES. The conversation cannot begin when the lights go down and after the applause has finished – but rather it has to begin with a concentrated effort on the shoulders of the company to bring the community in before they read a play that discusses the issues that the community is fighting for.

And TRIBES, to me, is about the search for identity in the face of erasure. Billy’s struggle is the Deaf community’s struggle and by putting on the show without a d/Deaf actor in the role of Billy you are doing both the community and the script a great disservice.

Lastly, and this is important:

I attended a Town Hall at Victory Gardens here in Chicago -- that was brought about by the casting of Porchlight's IN THE HEIGHTS. The one statement that was spoken that night and stood out to me above all others - and I hope any other future theatre companies wanting to do TRIBES (or any other multicultural play) reads this - is:

"Don't just get consultants, get COLLABORATORS."

It’s great that you want to bring in advisers – interpreters, advocates, and the like. But I don't believe it is enough. It would be like, to throw back to an earlier point – if I held a symposium on feminism, asked a woman for topics of discussion, and then stocked the panel with white men who discussed the topic. You need collaborators - people in the room during the creative process who have experienced the discrimination, the struggle, and yes, the erasure of their community.

I imagine the show will be good - I've never been to TCR as I have never lived anywhere near - but I'm sure they can put on a good show. And the hearing audience, many of whom are largely clueless of the struggles of the Deaf community and their desire to have their voices 'heard' will stand and clap and cheer - but they'll do it for all the wrong reasons. And the Deaf community, once again, will be left on the outside looking in. There will be something off about Billy's performance to them - just like there would be if I was cast as Troy in FENCES. It will be, for lack of a better term, inauthentic. And all of us theatre people know how important authenticity is when trying to tell stories of marginalized cultures.

I do believe that theatre, over all forms of art, is one of the few places where marginalized cultures can find their voice – and I also believe that as eternal students of life we have a duty to take what we can from these conversations and controversies and use it to improve themselves for the future. In your statement I saw very little about what TCR has learned from this and what they are going to take from this into the future. Could you expand on that? Will you be providing ASL interpreted performances of future shows after TRIBES? What about captions? What about the casting of future shows? Will those shows be cast with cultural authenticity in mind?

Or, and this is my fear and the fear of many in the Deaf community, will TCR use this show as an example to show how difficult it is to be Deaf and then one year from now we will be forgotten and the label of being an "invisible community" will once again be true? All the best, C. Richard Costes

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