debbie tucker green’s 'ear for eye' and Travis Alabanza’s ‘Burgerz' demand more from us, in the hope that we start to demand more from ourselves
debbie tucker green’s new play ear for eye is so politically and racially vehement that, once you’ve seen it, it seems to implant itself in every thought or response you have to anything even vaguely related to art, power, or humanity: Democrats flip the House? Think of ear for eye. More knife crime in London? Think of ear for eye. Visiting your elderly Indian grandmother? You get the idea.
tucker green presents a series of sketch-like episodes tackling race in the U.K and U.S. She addresses the nature of activism, academic debate surrounding mass shootings, and the harrowing reality of Black parents having to discuss how to avoid being profiled and targeted by the police with their adolescent sons.
These are all episodes with which the audience is familiar on some cultural level. For argument’s sake (and given that the Royal Court audience is predominantly white), let’s assume that this familiarity is second-hand: from news reports, documentaries, friends, and a general awareness of structural racism which comes from not only attending extraordinary theatre in SW1, but also from not living under an enormous rock during our era of continued prejudice.
tucker green facilitates this by anonymising the play completely. Proper names are avoided, with only ‘mom’, ‘dad’, ‘sir’, and a handful of others terms marking characters’ speech. Even the words ‘black’ and ‘white’ are omitted until the play’s third section, a video sequence in which countless white speakers read 20th century slave codes and legislation from both the U.S. and U.K. But with this lack of specificity comes a risk of detachment. As non-Black audiences have only a second-hand awareness of these lived scenarios — and are not offered named characters with linear development — there is a danger that ear for eye’s message could be subsumed by its cinematographic, reconstruction-like movement for those who might think, ‘this doesn’t concern me.’
But tucker green combats this with ease. The purpose of race-oriented theatre is not necessarily to completely collapse the cultural boundary between Black and white audiences. Her aim is to present scenarios so humanised and immediate that white audiences start rethinking and scrutinising injustice as if it were happening in their own communities, even though it’s not. To think ‘Fuck, this actually happens, and it’s awful’, rather than walking away discussing characterisation and plot — devices which, in this instance, would stifle ear for eye’s transcendent political resonances. For BAME (specifically Black) audiences, we are left to marvel at tucker green’s command of dialogue and presence.
The play not only depicts activism, it is activism. The Royal Court audience applauds and moves off into the night; all very well, all very powerful. But this is not the only way of doing political theatre. On the other side of London, Travis Alabanza’s Burgerz has just finished a sold-out run at Hackney Showroom.
The two shows take radically different approaches to representation. With ear for eye, we are given a series of scenarios before being compelled into populating them with our own cultural imagination and referents. During scenes depicting ‘the talk’ between Black parents and their teenage sons, I find myself thinking of Stephen Lawrence, of Trayvon Martin: ‘could this have been a conversation they had?’, I’m left wondering. With Burgerz, we’re not asked to relativise to external events. We’re asked to look Travis in the eye, to hear their story, hold their stare, and critique our own complicity. They start small, then engulf everything, and their ability to switch between the colloquial and the existential is brilliantly jarring.
The piece initially describes the moment in 2016 when Travis was subjected to a transphobic attack on Waterloo Bridge: a slur screamed, a burger hurled, and no one stopping to help. What follows is an endlessly powerful navigation of queer identity: of bodies, public space, and illusory allyship.
Whereas tucker green casts members of the public as mouthpieces for racist legislation, Travis moves from the personal to the structural via the (public) audience themselves, forcing a necessary introspection. I think (along with the whole audience) that ‘there’s no way I would ever attack a trans person like that’. But Travis makes it clear that it’s never that simple — what about the people who walked on? The studio space capacity is likely similar to the number of people who witnessed the attack that day, and so the seated audience comes to represent an entire generation of collective civil apathy towards queer bodies.
Burgerz exists in the space between our own self-perception, and the lived reality of queer isolation and trauma. After calling a ‘white cis male’ (this is crucial, Travis explains) audience member to help with making a burger on stage, a woman is then called forth to re-enact the attack. Except this time, they throw the burger aside together. Just like tucker green getting white families to recite British-Jamaican slave codes, Travis demands that the public appropriate the oppressor’s role in order illustrate their ability to re-direct it. Change, not just progress, is ear for eye’s mantra.
Two ways to do activism, two ways of making outstanding theatre. Whether starting narrow or broad in terms of narrative, political performance that strains audiences is powerful. With no intervals or respite, the two plays demand more from us, in the hope that we may then demand more from ourselves.