Such is the majesty in debbie tucker green’s ear for eye that I have struggled to capture it in words. I’ve seen review after review come out since I saw this play over a week ago, aware that any relevance for my opinion is diminishing by the day, but I have wanted so much to try to convey this play’s layers, its nuances, its cuts to the side of white privilege and its mastery of language that I have procrastinated to the point where I daren’t anymore.
So, please, take my humble apologies that nothing I write here can possibly compare to the brilliance of this production. But still I try.
A group of black men and women stand inert under a celling of blazing white light. Blinding whiteness. But slowly the white smoke starts to dissipate and the men and women – now freed from the whiteness in their midst – share with us and each other snapshots of their lives. A series of quick-fire scenes on the physical and mental pains of being forced to live within white lines. The tumult of anger and defeat, intergenerational spats on progress versus change (my brain has not stopped thinking about how these two are different, not different points on a single straight line since I saw this production) and seamlessly never-ending scenes of “the talk” as parents try to coach and steer sons on how to behave when cops are around.
It’s the same but different that kills you, it’s the clever interplay of American and British accents. And then how these are intershot with monologues of lip-biting anguish as black men speak of their treatment in police custody, and ones of fire from women on protest and defiance.
These scenes never end; they seem to flow seamlessly and endlessly into the next. Conversations come around again – don’t look them in the eye, but don’t look at the ground, keep your hands in sight but don’t put them up. And don’t keep them down either – that’s disrespectful. Don’t antagonise them, don’t confuse them….
Them, them, them… Such a clever and powerful way of turning language back on white populations. How us white people use the term ‘them’ to describe others. Migrants, refugees. Black, brown… Anyone who isn’t white and preferred. A reversal of otherism at its finest.
Then just as you feel this production is starting to lean towards a depressing, numbing repetition of similar scenes in black communities and households across the US and the UK, it suddenly turns, leaping into a powerful, increasingly tense double hander between a student and their lecturer. Woman versus man. Black versus white. Youth versus experience. Powerless versus privileged.
A young black woman has come to her professor’s study to debate. What they are debating becomes increasingly clear as the two start to encircle each other on stage. Prey and predator – the balance of power tipping endlessly between them. But this is a battle about language, a skewering of how our conscious and subconscious use of language defends and defines violence committed by white men, but judges and incriminates their black peers.
We bear witness to the belittling of a black woman; we watch as the man asserts his power and speaks over the woman. And we draw breath as the man disparages and patronises. For as much as this is the examination of language we use to frame violent acts, it is also an examination on the way white people use language – manipulate words – to decry any framing of their racist opinions as racist. It’s the layers… So many extraordinary and exquisite layers to the writing.
And then this three-act masterpiece is completed with a collage of video clips where everyday people read aloud racist laws and regulations that have littered and scarred our history. But again, dtg steers this from the usual ‘shake our heads’ opportunity to tut and judge America by seamlessly adding the reading of segregationist laws from the former British empire and its colonies with the familiar depressing ones from the Jim Crow era in the Deep South.
There is not a single element of this production that isn’t perfected to the point of utter brilliance, from the structure of the writing, to its execution by a cast that cleverly mimic and repeat both words and movement between them to demonstrate a never-ending cycle. debbie tucker green has always been on her own plane; ear for eye sees her operating on a whole other level.
Royal Court Theatre, London, to November 24, 2018.
Tickets from £12.
All production images by Stephen Cummiskey.