'Tribes' star Russell Harvard talks deaf community culture

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.

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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?

Yes, vintage signing. At that time, they would sign with less facial expression. They thought it was funny to watch. They needed to have [their hand movements] restricted; they would sign in a very small frame. And it's beautiful to watch — very clean signing. But now I think we're a little lazy and we sign fast. New York signers are fast. Like what? I didn't get that. I'm from Texas.

When did you decide to go into theater, and were you encouraged?

My cousin played the witch in [a deaf school production of ] "The Wizard of Oz," and seeing her [at age 8], I knew right away that I wanted to be able to transform myself into something that I'm not. And I told my classmates that we should do something like "The Wizard of Oz," but we had to give a Christmas performance, so we said that Santa Claus was lost in Oz. I decided that I wanted to be the lady witch, because I'd never done something like that before. Ever since, I've always been involved with theater. It's like my second home.

How many opportunities are there for deaf actors?

I think deaf theaters are dying slowly. I think the smartest way strategically to keep theater alive, especially with ASL productions, would be doing a musical. And do something that is known to theater-goers, like "Grease." We did that, and it was a huge success. They were signing the songs and "singing" along.

Do you attend conventional theater?

Yes. My first one was "Cats," and I just saw "The End of the Rainbow." I read the script first and then go see it.

What about movies?

No, but before there were no captions. Now there are captions everywhere. There's a [device] you put in your drink holder, or you have [subtitled] glasses... I told a casting director I want to play a villain. I don't want to play a good guy anymore. I'm tired of that.

I played a villain once. On "CSI: New York," I killed a girl. I've told casting directors that I'm hoping writers are more fearless. I met with the casting director of "The Walking Dead." I love that show. Even if I have to play the zombie, bring it on.

Does it bother you that you are cast in only deaf roles or deaf theater?

Sometimes. Roles are typically the same. I wish there was something else, but at the same time, I'm still glad that there's a job out there for me. I try to be more optimistic. Hopefully one day, I'll get more different kinds of jobs.

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