ear for eye – Royal Court Theatre, London
Writer/Director: debbie tucker green
Reviewer: Scott Matthewman
At first glance, debbie tucker green’s latest work for the Royal Court is taking aim at the racial divides in America. But during the two hours of its presentation, during which pace only ever slows so that tension may increase, it appears that there is a knot of anger at the heart of green’s thesis which is squarely British.
ear for eye is presented in three very distinct parts, each on their own enough for a powerful piece. Like movements in a symphony of racial anger, themes resonate throughout even while each component resonates with its own distinctiveness.
The first, a collection of scenes depicted by a cast of fourteen, is dominated by acts of protest. How should a young black man act if he is stopped by police, when every choice he makes can be interpreted as defiant aggression? Hayden McLean and Sarah Quist grapple with this conundrum with green’s distinctive dialogue, as poetic as it is piercing, in a manner that sets the tone for the entire piece.
Elsewhere, Tosin Cole – fast becoming a household name as a cast member on Doctor Who– demonstrates the command and presence that the family TV drama does not afford him, with a devastating performance as a young man frustrated by the lack of progress against racism. His character, and his abrasive, expletive-laden conversations with Nicholas Pinnock’s older character, are visited and revisited throughout Part 1 as his character is tempted into direct, possibly violent, action in the quest for change. “Give me a reason to not,”is the defiant plea. It is not a request that expects a response.
And while so many of these first scenes are set in America, situations are repeated, sometimes word for word or with sublet alterations, in British black families. Jamal Ajala, as a young deaf teenager, is faced with the same issues of how to deal with police as McLean, the implication being that what a young black man does with his hands in such a situation is complicated when sign language is brought in.
From the opening piece’s multiple characters splitting off into duos and trios for disparate scenes, Part 2 concentrates on just two people. Lashana Lynch discusses with a white, middle-aged academic (Demetri Goritsas) a school shooting. In a series of scenes that jump forward in time as their disagreements become more fraught, Goritsas’ explanations – that the assailant was a ‘lone wolf’, a teenager with behavioural problems. As Lynch systematically challenges each assumption, as she calls it out for the terrorism such an act is, Goritsas becomes defensive.
The aggression, the talking over, the pejorative dismissal of dissenting voices, will be familiar to anyone who has witnessed how characters like Jordan Petersen react when their blithe assertions are scrutinised. A duet for all its power there is something lacking in this scene. Perhaps it is because the atrocity the pair are discussing is visible to us only in the fragments of their argument: a decision which generalises their discussion as a look at all such cases, and how white aggressors are excused, perhaps. But in doing so a little of the power of green’s writing ebbs away.
In sharp contrast to the previous two parts, the third is shot all on film. American families intone some of the American South’s cruellest and harshest segregation laws. Rules barring establishments from serving both black and white clientele sit alongside other states’ rules legislating which children can play with which. Some of these laws were still being written into statute books in the late 1950s – a lesson that the civil rights movement of the Fifties and Sixties were not fighting a system of discrimination that remained in place due to inertia, but state governments that were actively oppressing their people.
In the final half of the recorded segment, we see where green feels that system of oppression took root, as British families recite our own slavery code. The punishments prescribed for salves that step out of line are as barbaric – noses slit, faces burned, bodies whipped, repeat offenders executed – as they are clinically catalogued in the slavery code.
This is the legacy, it feels as if green is saying. When American forces oppress the country’s Black citizens, the blood is on our hands too. “Give me a reason not to,” Cole reiterates in the show’s epilogue. And who, after watching this, could?
Runs until November 24 2018 | Image: Tristram Kenton