Royal Court Theatre, London – until 24 November 2018
Guest reviewer: Michael Adair
A glass box filled with smoke encapsulates the Royal Court stage. Shadowy figures patrol its perimeter, sometimes staring out at the audience, trapped. The play begins as the box is lifted, uncaging 15 people, all of them black. Over 11 scenes they take it in turns to address one another.
Sometimes they speak to specific people, they could be their parents, their friends, sometimes directly to the entire group. Each takes his or her turn speaking, but far more time is spent listening. Sitting on wooden chairs, sometimes they are assembled like a support group, other times angrier, arranged around the speaker as in a boxing ring or slumped, as if a meeting of outraged trade unionists.
The conversations are snapshots: of anger, of frustration, of exasperation. They are conversations about being black – witnessing and being subjected to police brutality, how to act and how to carry yourself without fear of unjust punishment, of peaceful protest and of the suggestion of violent protest in a desperate attempt to bring positive change.
Written by debbie tucker green [the lower-case titles are her wish] this is a searing, breathtaking work where listening is a recurring theme. In part 1, the snapshots of stories move along frantically, at first hard to catch on to. But with the repetition – with the scenes ticking between African American and Black British voices, the anger the issues start to match, echo and twist into the same tornado – police brutality, protest, working to be perceived as ‘acceptable’.
As this tornado picks up pace and whistles around the stage, we reach part 2. There is little left in its wake. Gone are our familiar 15 faces, now we just have two. A young black woman (Lashana Lynch) and a middle-aged white man (Demetri Goritsas). The man is incapable of listening: the two are discussing a heinous crime – the man disagrees, twists and turns, interrupts, cites ‘ the research’, repeatedly references his own intelligence, mansplains, asserts things verging on hysteria. He does not listen or, when challenged, accept that he is not listening.
As the nameless white man keeps turning the tables, pontificating, the stage slowly rotates clockwise, screwing around and around, along with our own stomach. This is real, this stuff really happens. This is still a world of ‘I’m not racist, but…’ and tucker green is here masterfully showing us one of the most astonishing accounts of the modern black experience that I have ever seen.
With part 2 leaving us on the ropes, part 3 is the knockout blow. We see a pre-recorded film, dozens of white American voices: children, elderly couples, families all sitting sadly and uncomfortably whilst they read Jim Crow laws, the laws that enforced racial segregation in the USA, such as ‘It shall be unlawful for a Negro and white person to play together or in company with each other in any game of cards, dice, dominoes or checkers.’ This is followed by British voices reading some of the obscene British Slave Codes for Jamaica.
This is a merciless and frankly, traumatic piece of work, well deserved by our angry, divided times. As a work of drama, the lack of narrative sometimes causes it to feel like scenes wear on for too long after the emotional waves come crashing over the rocks. But it is a work of art, a sincere and important message more important to be seen for what it is, rather than picked apart in a review.
My words are less important, go and listen to debbie tucker green’s.
Box Office: 020 7565 5000 to 24th November
Michael Adair on reflection feels it inappropriate to offer star (or mouse) ratings from 0-5 here, and theatrecat feels that this is as valid a judgement as ratings themselves: we like you to read the words rather than count the stars…