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Ear for Eye review at Royal Court, London – ‘astonishing and uncompromising’

The cast of Ear for Eye at Royal Court Theatre, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Debbie Tucker Green doesn’t so much write plays as construct intricate theatrical architecture out of language. With Ear for Eye, she goes further than ever before in breaking down and reconstructing form, creating a complex work of economic eloquence and gestural clarity, uncompromisingly and brilliantly her own. It’s tough, harrowing, and fiercely beautiful.

The subject is race, or rather what it is to be black today, in the UK or the US: what it is to live with continuing racism, in a society built like a fortress for whites; what it is to carry the weight of a history of oppression, and of the seemingly endless, exhausting struggle to bring about change.

Tucker Green also directs – and, typically, the dimensions of her work, its very dramatic scaffolding, seems to shift and expand the longer you gaze and listen.

In three stunningly acted parts divided into gripping episodes, she shows, with highly charged precision, how language is power: how it defines identity and reclaims narrative. And how the language of white officialdom condemns and excludes, words becoming the bricks in an edifice that protects and perpetuates white privilege.

Conversations are starkly poetic, fugue-like, repeatedly looping backwards, while anguish and anger spiral. Merle Hensel’s design is a translucent cube filled with white smoke; the cast emerge as if through choking fog. Later, the image reappears in a vivid account of a protest march dispersed by tear gas. But first comes a scene in which an African-American mother advises her adult son on how to stay out of trouble. The smallest action could be used against him – the way he holds his hands, the way he glances at someone, the way he speaks.

It’s a motif that recurs: there are UK stories of wrongful arrest, the innocent victims told “that mouth will get you into trouble”. A young deaf actor signing his frustration highlights the dangers of the misinterpreted gesture. And, horrifically, the mutilation of ears is listed among the punishments routinely meted out to slaves in the play’s third part – a filmed section in which modern white people of all ages, children included, recite extracts from the Jim Crow Laws and British Jamaican slave codes.

Shifting perceptions of activism and community are evoked, alongside the role of social media. Part Two presents a taut confrontation following the massacre of black American schoolchildren by two white teenage boys. A white professor dismisses it as the action of a “lone wolf” from a broken home, despite clear evidence that the boys were white supremacists. Challenged by a black female student, he turns from smoothly condescending to vicious, while her articulate fury and incredulity mounts. It’s a chilling portrayal of systemic abuse of power, and like everything here, it’s blazingly intense. An astonishing work of art.

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An uncompromising, poetic examination of black history, racial politics and protest