Mark Ludmon reviews Debbie Tucker Green’s new play Ear For Eye at the Royal Court
Ear For Eye
Royal Court, London
As a white privileged male, I have no experience of living in a world where the colour of my skin means I am significantly more at risk of being stopped by the police or generally treated like a criminal. According to the latest data, black people in Britain are three times more likely to get arrested than white people and four times more likely to have force used against them by the police. With shocking and recurring instances of violence by police in the US towards African-Americans, sometimes leading to unarmed men being shot, Debbie Tucker Green has attempted to capture some of this injustice and rage in her new play, Ear For Eye, which highlights that progress has been made but nowhere near enough.
Running at over two hours without an interval, it is an insistent, unrelenting cry of protest. Split into three parts, the middle section is the most naturalistic, presenting a white man and a black woman picking over the prejudices and assumptions made over the perpetrators of mass shootings in the US depending on the colour of their skin and backgrounds. Brilliantly written and darkly funny, it engages us with the growing frustration of the woman, played by Lashana Lynch, with the arrogance and constant interruptions by the white psychologist, played by Demetri Goritsas.
This is prefaced by a long opening act made up of a series of scenes, full of deliberate repetition, that reveal the experiences of black men and women on both sides of the Atlantic, often nearly identical, from tackling police force to taking part in demonstrations. In one bleakly funny scene, a mother explains to her son that, for a black person, there is literally no gesture that cannot be interpreted as hostile by a police officer, which was greeted with sounds of recognition from members of the audience. It is hard to pick out individuals from the consistently excellent 16-strong cast so I must name them all: Hayden McLean, Sarah Quist, Angela Wynter, Michelle Greenidge, Nicholas Pinnock, Tosin Cole, Seroca Davis, Shaniqua Okwok, Faz Singhateh, Jamal Ajala, Anita Reynolds, George Eggay, Kayla Meikle and Eric Kofi Abrefa.
The first two parts, set in the present day, are put into historical context by a short film which, like the rest of the play, is written and directed by Debbie Tucker Green. It shows white Americans, including children, reading out the Jim Crow state laws that enforced US racial segregation in the 20th century, some as recent as 1956, which separated white and black people in every part of their lives from hospitals and schools to restaurants and cemeteries. But the UK is not let off: the film also features white Britons reading slave codes that existed in colonial Jamaica until the 19th century, banning black people from ownership and trade and meting out far more savage punishments than those for white people. It reminds us that racism was on the statute books in the US as recently as 50 years ago but also that many more years have passed since the Jamaican slave codes, suggesting that time is no excuse.
The set, designed by Merle Hensel, is minimal, with clever lighting by Christopher Shutt, but opens with a striking glass box trapping the black cast inside, obscuring them in a cloud of white fog. But this is not just a protest play. The characters may not have names but they are driven by a need to assert their identity, to say “I was here”. Directed by Debbie Tucker Green herself, this powerful, challenging drama is an urgent, impatient call for change.
Running to 24 November 2018.