Thursday 27 January 2022

On demand: "ear for eye"

debbie tucker green's follow-up to her underseen feature debut Second Coming returns the playwright to her theatrical roots. An adaptation of her own 2018 play, ear for eye pokes around inside the post-Eric Garner moment on a soundstage occupied by a predominantly Black ensemble. The structure is tripartite. In the first, we eavesdrop on conversations tucker green's representative characters have with their family, peers and themselves on the subject of how to present to the world - chiefly a matter of going out with enough confidence to get you through the day, but not so much as to appear cocky or confrontational to those who would take you down. The second part is a Neil LaBute-ish dialogue between a Black student and an arrogant white professor in the wake of a high-school shooting; the third - adding an element of documentary - invites non-actors to read out those laws by which American states discriminated against its Black citizens. (There follows a mysterious coda, which will depend heavily on personal experience and interpretation.) It's exactly the kind of project the BFI has been backing since the 1970s (and we might see it as more than a little damning of society that the BFI still needs to back a project such as this, a half-century on): a small, self-contained unit of resistance to the abiding cultural and political status quo, relatively cheap to produce but abundantly rich in ideas.

tucker green's spare staging - people in a darkened space repurposed by the odd prop and the occasional lighting switch - keeps the focus firmly on those ideas, and especially on the words via which they're expressed. "We still having to have the damn Talk," one character laments early on - a reference both to the set of survival tips one generation passes down to the next, and the wider conversations around race that often appear circular, stuck like a back wheel in mud; that never seem to get us to the higher ground. This is the tucker green work that seems most caught up with language as a means of self-expression in a society where some parties get to express themselves more freely than others. The opening section - which occupies over half the running time, and proves pretty relentless in its talk, as if the playwright were making up for lost time, bringing us up to speed on two thousand years of race relations - forms an attempt to define not just the terms by which Black citizens enter into society, but the terms of the drama itself. The "ear" part of that title is fully covered. tucker green extends her frame of reference to include characters who communicate using sign language; she also proves one of the very few working playwrights who know how to write about social media - today's most prominent discussion forum - without making the toes curl. (Her kids talk as kids do when you hear them at the bus stop.)

The second and third sections, by marked contrast, are case studies, honing in on moments where the possibility of lasting, positive change - not least a fairer conversation - was snuffed out, where the dialogue ran straight into a brick wall. In the second, nervy formalities (such as the student's use of "sir") give way to something more informal; a facade drops - literally, in the instance of one effective coup de théâtre - and the student is left speechless. In the third, which makes exemplary use of split screen, there is no Black voice at all: we're carried back to a time when those facades, those separators and segregators, were first set in place, written into the very laws of the land. (And it's not just a handful of laws, either: the sequence occupies a full ten minutes of screen time.) As described, it may sound piecemeal, and it is - but that's tucker green's way of breaking down these issues, and of making every last one of her full stops count. You want these conversations to end on a happier note than they do; when they don't, you realise the extent to which the playwright has weaponised silence. In places, you may even gasp, much as you take a breath before starting a sentence; and indeed the whole ear for eye project, if it can be reduced to a single sentence, conveys something along the exasperated lines of "here, I'm done: now it's your turn to talk". That may alienate some who feel they don't know what or don't have anything to say, even after all these atrocities, all this time. Yet in the UK, at least, the film became a cultural event on a par with the launch of Derek Jarman's Blue thirty years before, simultaneously launching at the London Film Festival, in arthouses across the land, and in a prime Saturday night slot on BBC2. Somebody out there was listening, and maybe that's cause for slim hope. Bristling and provocative, forever setting the ball bearings in one's head to clicking anew, it's certainly something to talk about; for all its theatricality, it is finally cinema.

ear for eye is currently streaming via the BBC iPlayer.

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