At the Royal Court Theatre, a cell filled with white smoke dominates your view. Obscure black figures appear through the smoke pressing their hands to the container. Debbie Tucker Green’s Ear for Eye presents the ever-prevalent issue of racism through moments of Black British and African American lives.
The show is repetitive in nature. The language used is repeated constantly with the questions being asked over and over again. The dialogue rhythmic through this repetition. At points the repetition feels darkly humorous, as it is impossible to understand the ludicrous logic of racist police men. At other times repetition highlights the how long black people have been struggling against the seemingly impenetrable, contrariness of racist thinking: before, before, before.
The play is rightfully ever critical of the racist institution that exists in our society, Debbie Tucker Green’s writing is conscious and reflective of the movements against. Is a violent response warranted and productive? Is the new trend of social media woke-ness helpful? Does marching have any effect anymore?
The cast that appears on stage, bar one white man playing the ignorant male professor, is made up entirely of black actors. Presenting to the audience the diversity in blackness. Specifically, in the range in perspectives on black experience of racism and how if at all it should be fought against. Ear for eyedemonstrates how prejudice paints individuals with the same brush. Comparatively through one white actor, whiteness is presented not as filled with oppressed individuals but as the oppressive supremacist institution.
Much like the infuriatingly repetitive argument that is had with this condescending professor – who is the absolute epitome of white male academia – the piece constantly returns to its point. Blackness to whiteness is seen one way. Whiteness explaining whiteness has many different specific attributes to explain individual cases. Such as discussed in Part 2 white male gunman, coined as lone wolf, disturbed, disassociated but never terrorists. These scenes further point made throughout Part 1 by the actors’ consistent presence on stage. Actors come forwards for their conversations, but all are still shown behind, countering the homogeneous blackness narrated to us through the institution. Black violence is barbaric, terroristic, whilst white violence should be understood case by case, because of the murderer’s susceptible mind and society’s failings.
Whilst Paule Constable’s lighting design de-homogenises those it spotlights; the cold clinical lighting is a reminder of police headlights. A reminder to be cautious of the police and that innocence does not prevent the infliction of imprisonment, brutality and death on black bodies. This also resonates through the choices in stage design (by Merle Hensel) in which the cell hangs above the heads of the actors, with scuffed concrete of cell walls visible within, brought down over two men’s heads at the height of tension.
Part 3 differs from its predecessors, as rather than live performance a film is shown, containing only white actor: firstly, reading US Jim Crow laws then the UK’s slave laws. Those reading seem unconcerned with the laws they regurgitate, which describe the violent punishments and unjust separation laws that were commonplace. Whilst uttering these words the white actors smile at one another, comforting and offering friendly gestures to the person beside them and the camera focuses on the whiteness of their skin. This Part demonstrates that racism does not always come in form of an obvious, invasive, evil but in the complacency of passive citizens.
Ear for eye is not designed to make you feel empowered or comfortable. It there to make you feel uncomfortable, to make you fidget in the seat as you stare a racist institution in the face. A racist institution that forces parents to explain to their children that police officers may still kill them regardless of how they behave. Uncomfortable because whilst the UK claims to have moved on from its racist past and looks to its Atlantic cousin in disgust, the same conversations are having to be had here, the same fights are having to be fought.
Debbie Tucker Green is not saying anything new. She is driving home what should be obvious what should be said and understood. It is the fact that these are not new issues that the point still needs to be made.
Words, Billie Walker @queen.feta
Images, Stephen Cummiskey