A mother is talking to her teenage son about what to do when approached by the police. He shows his palms. “Inflammatory," sy sê. He puts his hands in his pockets. “Belligerent," sy sê. “I didn’t even …” he protests. “Attitude,” she bats back, her voice matter-of-fact but tinged with despair. No matter what he says, wears, does, the list goes on. “Arrogance, insolence, defiance.” What if he looks confidently at them? “Good,” says his mum, “but not.” If he turns away? “Impudence, disobedience.” If he looks at the floor? “We didn’t raise you to look at no floor, son.”
And so begins ear for eye (BBC Twee), debbie tucker green’s vital, eloquent and beautifully acted screen adaptation of her original stage play, watter opened at the Royal Court in 2018 to rave reviews. I say adaptation, but this is so much more than a straight-up piece of filmed theatre. Which is great, because no matter how brilliant a play is, when the fourth wall becomes the black mirror of my own TV screen my suspension of disbelief is dismantled and the whole theatre comes crashing down. Happily, in making the delicate transfer from stage to screen, ear for eye ends up pushing the boundaries of both forms. Here is a blistering experimental film about British and American black experience, rarely seen side by side. The sparest and most unsparing of cine-poems. A play with extras using spoken word, physical theatre, installation and music to verbalise what remains beyond the bounds of articulacy.
ear for eye is composed of three distinct but connected parts, all of which play out against a stark black backdrop with minimal props. The first is a series of short monologues, dialogues, encounters, and confrontations. A US elder involved in the civil rights movement (Nicolas Pinnock) is berated by his young activist son (Tosin Cole), who has had it with the long, slow, steady march of progress and demands change, nou. “Give me a reason not to …” he shouts, omitting the word that we, the audience, must add internally on his behalf: verander. This is a tucker green signature: to leave words hanging and sentences unfinished. Not only does it demonstrate the silencing around such painful subjects as racism and police brutality, it demands our intimate participation.
Some sketches, such as two young women at a BLM demo arguing over where effective protest ends and hashtag activism begins, are less convincing than others. And sometimes tucker green’s repetitions – of words such as “attitude and aggression”, and scenarios involving racial profiling – lose their cumulative power and become, wel, a bit repetitive. But when it works, it really works. In a stunning incantatory monologue, an older black woman (Carmen Munroe) speaks of the past and present, and how little has changed. Each sentence begins with the word “before” and, as she talks, the seasons turn around her, shifting from falling leaves to rain, snow and blossom. “Before our children had no chance to be children," sy sê. “Had no choice, het no choice, but to be involved, when involved was physical and dangerous, is physical and dangerous.”
In a lesser writer’s hands, this might be dry and overwrought. But tucker green is a tremendous wordsmith, capable of writing sentences at once as lyrical as prose poetry and as sinewy, spontaneous and real as speech. No one talks like her characters, yet they are completely convincing. This is also down to the talent of the ensemble cast. In part two, an extended two-hander, Lashana Lynch (the new 007 in No Time to Die) is excellent as the respectful but increasingly frustrated academic attempting to get a word in edgeways with her arrogant, mansplaining, gaslighting white male colleague. As an exposition of how futile a conversation can be when one person’s reality is completely invisible to another’s, it was so good that my blood pressure went up.
Part three is the simplest of all. A stark piece of verbatim theatre in which a series of white American and British citizens, both adults and children, face the camera while reading out historical segregation laws and the racist slave codes that preceded them. Hier, tucker green’s urgent contemporary voice takes a step back to let history speak for itself. Eventually, because the past is never done, the voices fade out. The cast reassemble in the rain, dressed in black. Their final cry of pain, to the glorious opening strains of FKA twigs’ Cellophane, is also a call to action.