ear for eye
Play: ear for eye
Playwright: debbie tucker green
Director: debbie tucker green
Theatre: Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, Royal Court
Review by Joy Francis
Forever an enigma, debbie tucker green’s latest play ear for eye is a complex masterpiece. It scrutinises and dissects the lingering pain, damage and injustice of racism on black people’s lives with emotional intelligence and razor sharp intent.
The play potently displays this grinding, anxiety-inducing and undeniable reality through beautifully-crafted stories of Black British and African American parallel experiences.
Its pitch perfect tone and timing is uncanny. Coming in the aftermath of the US Pittsburgh white supremist pipe bomber, the lead up to the racially fractious midterm US elections and the racial scaremongering and political flailing over Brexit, makes it appropriately uncomfortable viewing.
The 16-strong ensemble unveil stories, in three parts, like chapters in an arresting book, all linked by race and history repeating itself. In part one, 14 black cast members are revealed from under a smoky glass box, framed like an exquisite tableau, frozen in time.
In ones, twos and threes they lay bare personal stories of trials and tribulations, while the other characters remain on stage, bearing witness in the shadows.
Black parents in the UK and stateside disagree about the best way to keep their black sons safe in the world. An African American mother and her teenage son negotiate how best to walk the streets without his hands being seen as a weapon. Each gesture he performs attracts chastisement or intense caution from his mother.
Hands outstretched – too aggressive. Hands in pockets – arrogant. Eyes cast downwards. ‘We didn’t raise you to look at no floor son.’ It’s a no win situation. Vulnerability is not an option.
Many of the stories are cleverly recycled and reframed with different characters, soaked in tucker green’s trademark poetics and narrative echoes, peppered with a call and response style. Her words draw you in before easing into a different energetic tone and real speak. Always nuanced, teasing and testing, her stories cajole you to think and question.
A Black British woman’s tale of police brutality is highly charged. A Black British man’s recall of a similar experience is shared quietly. Her reluctance is seen by officers as resistance; her hesitation, obstruction. With him, the goal is to provoke a reaction. But ‘I said nuthin said nuthin said nuthin’. She is restrained by four officers; he by six. I’m left with the unsettling memory of Cherry Groce and Julian Cole.
tucker green takes aim at many targets and has an abundance of things to say in two hours. Intergenerational activism and competition is one. Another is social media obsessed millennials minimising the role their parents and ancestors played in the struggle, out of frustration.
This position is perfectly portrayed by the rageful African American son who rejects his father’s call for patience and progress after the murder of his friend. ‘Change kicks progress’ ass,’ the son barks. Rosa Parks sitting at the back of the bus is decried by the young man as a weakness, not a strength. The play is littered with evidence for why Black Lives Matter exists.
Thankfully, tucker green is in complete command as director and playwright and creatively contains all the narrative threads, aided by evocative staging and inspired sound effects that unnerve and jolt you into alertness.
Male chauvinism and micro aggressions permeate part two as a white professor and a black female student verbally spar in the wake of two young white men murdering African American schoolchildren.
They are lone wolves, copycat killers, disaffected, he says. What they are not are terrorists, nor are their parents to blame. But young black men who murder… The parents are too blame. They have external influences – the studies don’t lie.
At first tentative, the student’s persistent questioning and intellectual challenges prick the professor’s ego like a tattoo needle. His thinly veiled passive aggressiveness sparks flickers of anger and unearths rampant racial hypocrisy. Her authentic voice breaks free. ‘You lot have nine lives,’ she says.
This play keeps you on the edge of your seat. The staging is intimate, inventive and matches the emotions on display. The white professor and black student’s circular arguments are mirrored in them being slowly spun around on stage as they hotly defend their positions.
As for the cast (fully listed below) – scintillating, raw, believable and impressive. They convince us that we are eavesdropping on their fraught lives, which are not theirs to live, even in their own homes.
Part three may have the same impact as the end of BlacKkKlansman – lest we forget, while the explosive epilogue leaves us with a devastating question.
ear for eye has a stern and unflinching message for everyone: racism is no laughing matter. It has seeped into every part of our lives and psyche at the violent and dehumanising expense of black people. Ignorance is no longer excusable.
A vitally important work of art that, unlike Trump, will glow with ingenuity under the scrutiny of history.
ear for eye is at Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, Royal Court, until 24 November 2018.
Photo credit: Stephen Cummiskey
Full cast: Jamal Ajala, Tosin Cole, Seroca Davis, George Eggay, Demetri Goritsas, Michelle Greenidge, Eric Kofi Abrefa, Lashana Lynch, Hayden McLean, Kayla Meikle, Shaniqua Okwok, Nicholas Pinnock, Sarah Quist, Anita Reynolds, Faz Singhateh and Angela Wynter.