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Theatre review: Ear For Eye

Invisible
prisons: A
glass box
above the
cast is a
symbol of
threats to
black
people
PICTURE: STEPHEN
CUMMISKEY

REVIEW

Ear For Eye

Royal Court ★★★★✩

A GLASS box hangs over the stage of Debbie Tucker Green’s latest ensemble piece, threatening to fall over the 15 black actors on stage.

Ear For Eye is about invisible prisons but, as the title suggests, it is also concerned with notions of justice, and the near impossibility of achieving it if you are black and living in the US or UK.

Protesting won’t help, advises a black American mentor to his frustrated student in one of several elliptical encounters in part one: you’ll start a bloodbath. Don’t expect the police to be on your side, says a black British woman: if you are black, they’ll assume you are guilty regardless. Be careful with your body language, advise two parents to their American son (the scene is later reprised with two British parents, this time the son is deaf); every possible pose risks being interpreted as ‘antagonistic’.

Part two features further encounters, this time between a white American psychologist and a younger black colleague (Lashana Lynch, pictured), after a massacre of black American students by two white boys. He thinks the boys were lone wolves, one of them from a broken family; she doesn’t understand why he can’t acknowledge the massacre was racially motivated.

Part three is a sequence of video footage featuring white American and British actors recounting respectively the Jim Crow laws (of segregation) and British and European penal codes deployed against slaves.

It’s tough, discomforting and brutally effective. Black people are victims of systemic racism entrenched within American and British culture, says Tucker Green repeatedly, in ways that, for all the artful poetry of her dialogue, have the savage ring of documentary truth.

Her final point, that the abuses of history are in some way a justification for action today, feels crude and blunt, but the first two parts, which lay bare the shattering impact of insidious power systems on everyday black experience, are essential viewing.