Multicultural Performing Arts

Tribes Alumnus: Joe Simpson

When I first met Joe Simpson, we were both part of the Tribes show developed at Renton High School in 2001. He played a father character in the RHS show, and now 13 years later he’s got a kid of his own (in real life!). Joe currently works as a preschool teacher and is married to Monica Barroga, who happens to be a Tribes alumna herself, and they are both members of Eldridge Gravy & The Court Supreme, a 14-member funk outfit that has been making waves in the Pacific Northwest for their music and stagemanship.

I spoke to Mr. Gravy (Joe is the frontman for the band) about his early Tribes experiences at Renton High School and the Tribes alumni show he took to South Africa in 2001.



Do you remember what motivated you to audition for the Renton High School Tribes show?

 Joe Simpson played the father of an adopted daughter in  Face Change  (2001)

Joe Simpson played the father of an adopted daughter in Face Change (2001)

Yeah, I was already acting at the time for a while. I had been acting since I was younger doing various theatre projects, in school and out of school and summer programs. I was also in the Northwest Boy Choir growing up, I had classical vocal training, so I guess I was on the track to becoming a performer. And Tribes, when I was 17 going on 18, a senior in high school, it seemed like the kind of catapult or springboard or whatever that I wanted to go for as an actor. I didn’t go into pursuing much acting after Tribes because nothing seemed as vital as Tribes, ultimately. As an acting experience it kind of spoiled me for other acting experiences. When the [Tribes] audition happened at Renton High School I was totally ready to jump on that because the theatre program at Renton left me wanting something else. I wasn’t really into the theatre program at RHS so Tribes sounded spectacular and exciting. And it was improvisational theatre which I hadn’t really done before. I had Shakespearean acting up to that point, taking classes at least, nothing professional, and I had done musical theatre, but I had never done anything avant-garde. So that was what kinda drew me to Tribes.

How did you find yourself doing alumni shows after that?

I just didn’t want to stop. The 2001 Tribes show Face Change ended and they had asked me to join rehearsal for Novaland, which is the show we ended up taking to South Africa. So I never really stopped. I went from a Tribes high school show into an alum show that went to South Africa the summer of my senior year of high school. So my first alum show was my senior trip, you could say. 


And so that was life-changing, going to South Africa for a month, living in Soweto, working with African youth. I mean, they were older than us, especially me, because I was one of the younger people [from Tribes]. It was life-changing, to say the least, so I kept on performing and working with Tribes for several years after the fact. So that’s how I found myself an alum. I just stayed an alum. And I wanted it to keep on going, and I was kind of sad to see it fizzle out. Because I didn’t get to go to Kosovo or some of those awesome trips like the trip to Baja, Mexico. I kind of missed out on those because I was doing other musical and theatre things.

You mentioned “life-changing.” Could you mention, more specifically, how that South Africa show was life-changing for you? I think you were probably 18, right?

Yeah, I was 18. See, learning the Tribes process in high school, was eye opening because it taught you--or it allowed you--to trust your intuition. I think as a young person a lot of social constructs, things that society puts on us, squash our intuition and our higher consciousness. Tribes really asks you to tap into that: the whole improvisational process, the way J. Paul took so seriously what we emoted and tapped into, and our own experiences that filled out our performances and improvisational pieces. He really helped each one of us if you were ready to do it--tap into our intuition. Having done that process and continuing it with a new group of actors who also knew that process but were from Seattle, the alumni group felt like the cream of the crop. My intuitive nerve was raw and I was ready and very open and ripe and gullible and ready to be imprinted upon.

 Joe Simpson in  Novaland  (2001), a Tribes production taken to South Africa

Joe Simpson in Novaland (2001), a Tribes production taken to South Africa

So going to South Africa, which is half a world away from where I live, and having that be my first international experience--to do something as special as create this play with a group of people that were also going to know the process I knew, using our own intuition--I wasn’t afraid. I was open and willing when I entered into it because of the process of improv I had learned from Tribes. And so going there ready to delve deep into this whole other culture and have no barriers, we transcended language and cultural barriers--and that’s what Tribes is all about, ultimately. I really saw the powerful formative ability of J. Paul’s process--I saw it work on these other people, and I got to connect with them in a deep way that goes beyond band camp or some more trivial American experience that we all have. This was really unique.

You mentioned transcending language and cultural barriers. Do you remember what in particular about the South Africa show allowed you to do that?

We got to do home stays, which is a big thing. Each one of us stayed with one of the cast members and they opened their doors and their homes and they fed us their food. They lived in townships where they were pushed during apartheid and they created a community there. They spoke pretty good english but I didn’t know their language. I had to learn some of their language. We learned a lot of their songs to use in the play because they had created their own version of Novaland separately from us while we were still in America and we combined our two shows together. And we used a lot of their music, so I got to learn a lot of it just from their mouths, not from a piece of paper.

  Joe Simpson (fourth from the right) and Monica Barroga (seventh from the right) and their band Eldridge Gravy & The Court Supreme is headlining the  Tribes benefit show  at Nectar Lounge on June 6.

Joe Simpson (fourth from the right) and Monica Barroga (seventh from the right) and their band Eldridge Gravy & The Court Supreme is headlining the Tribes benefit show at Nectar Lounge on June 6.