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Russell Harvard: Actors in "Tribes"


Huh? What did you say? Can you repeat that? I didn’t hear you.”

We ask these questions frequently. We have our headphones in. We’re on our phone. We’re not paying attention. These questions are common-place, but the play, “Tribes,” uses these questions as a form of abuse.

In the production, Russell Harvard, a Hard of Hearing actor, plays Billy, a Deaf young man. In the storyline, Billy is the only Deaf member of his family. He struggles to overcome narcissism and abuse at the hands of his family members. Diction is their weapon of choice.

Like those of us in the world that feel different, like many Deaf and Hard of Hearing people, Billy is forced to overcome exclusion and isolation. When Billy brings home a girlfriend whose parents are Deaf, and who is teaching him sign language, Billy’s father challenges her, suggesting that sign language creates a cultural and linguistic ghetto.

“Tribes” is a unique play. The world of theater has not historically offered many opportunities to the Deaf and Hard of Hearing population; however, “Tribes” is one of three major productions that cast actors with hearing loss. In fact, protests began when a hearing individual was cast to play the role of the Deaf protagonist in the adaptation of the novel, “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” in 2009. Advocates for diversity in casting were especially vocal. Director Sharon Jensen, “When you’re not even allowed to play yourself, opportunities are extraordinarily limited.”

Harvard is a talented actor, who has been recognized for his ability to “listen.” Director David Cromer acknowledges Harvard’s “focus face” when he is paying attention. Harvard “[soaks] up stimuli and… [responds] to it in an unedited fashion, and it’s really, really readable.” This talent and ability has landed Harvard roles in There Will Be Blood, and The Hammer, a film based on the life of a Deaf college wrestler. He has also appeared in “CSI: NY,” worked with the Deaf West Theater, and done two films with a production company specializing in American Sign Language films.

Harvard wants to continue working in theater, regardless of the nature of his roles, so that he can gain more exposure. “Speaking? Sure. Signing? Fine. Whatever – just bring it on,” Harvard says.

“Tribes” received the “Drama Desk Award for the Best New Play,” the “New York Critics Circle Award for Best Foreign Play” and the “Off Broadway Alliance for Best New Play.” It also received an Olivier Award nomination for its 2010 London debut. The play broke Barrow Street box-office records in the spring of 2012.