This motif is expressed in Ta-Nahesi Coates’ Between the World and Me (required reading on the Black American experience, along with James Baldwin and Cornel West) where he evokes, powerfully, the threat to the black body and the difficulty parents have in teaching their black children how to simply be.
To me, those parts of the play are a poetic dramatic embodiment of Coates’ letter to his child. The intergenerational conflict between different black activists echoes with the vitriolic fall-out between Cornel West and Coates. I observe it in other aspects of those who should be on the same page (the fighting between far-left and centre-left, for instance, the far left accusing the centre of letting the far right in; the fighting between the non-binary LBGTQ minorities - perhaps that’s where majorities splinter minorities via divide and rule, as through history), whether that’s intergenerational or perhaps ideological.
This fighting extends to the approach activism is taking. Protest but stand at the back of march, look at clashes from afar. Take a selfie and talk about it. The activists argue about their methods “with all due respect” (but an Brit audience knows when we say “with all due respect” we Brits mean “you stupid effing idiot”. The point argued to my mind is that this form of protest is ineffective and powerless. This ignores some of the real world progress made (George Washington kept slaves and equality of opportunity is far greater now), but art is not made to be balanced - and the outrage in the play is palpable.
Ear for eye then has particular real world echoes. It’s not the specific singular narratives that the white academic in Part 2 tries to defend, it’s systemic oppression, and that gun violence in the US is not isolated either, and not explained away by lone wolfs, cults and depressives.
I had a sense of boxers in a ring for Part 2. Personally, I wondered how different it would be with a tightly constrained intensity rather than a slow rotating circle, but I guess it would be equally effective carried by the language - here the tones of academic speech clanging effectively.
Part 3 take us back to the slave codes of the 1800s (Jamaica particularly) into the segregation up to the early-to-mid 1900s in the US. It does not go back further to the historic global slave trades or touch upon the trading in Africa. The situation in 1800s England, itself, is missing. The work is verbatim and pre-filmed and spoken by various caucasian actors/non-actors.
As a link to why we have modern slavery and oppression today, this Part 3 section of the play makes the point. Personally, as a verbatim or found form, I find Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony (link end) to be more profound and Smith’s Notes From the Field (seen on this stage a few weeks ago) to have been more rousingly dramatic. This Part 3 reminded me of an art installation, and the distant time, as well as distant filming and portrayal, contained a quieter message.
Part 3 left me pondering. Who makes the laws? People. Who changes the laws? People, too. The laws have changed. Rules codify society norms. Slave codes were tools of supremacy. To point to them as an originating force is to not looking deeply enough.
“... third of the four-of-them who had
and said for my ears only,
that the four-a-them got more rights than
me and they know ‘em better than the few I got that he knew I didn’t even know.” (from Part 2)
Why I find Reznikoff’s Testimony so powerful is that it takes the found stories and plainly speaks to the abuse of the time - comprehensively and systematically.
I find CD Wright’s One With Others an astonishing exploration of this theme as well. Wright explores an explosive moment in American Civil Rights when black students who were rounded up and detained in an empty public swimming pool in her home state of Arkansas
I find it notable green directed the play. Actors intentions are crystal. Attention to the use of punctuation, overlap and caesura is crisp in a way that occurs only in close reading by a director. That she is the writer as well should add clarity for the actors. The way British Sign Language drops seamlessly into the play, and as deeply expressive in its movement as the stillness from the spoken word actors.
As a work by a black artist speaking to racial injustice ear for eye joins a growing body of important work across art forms. As a play it continues to push boundaries of form and style equal to the dramaturgy of our greatest playwrights. For the Royal Court, it speaks to its social purpose and reaching to an audience that reflects wider life.
As to my misquiet about where we are with identity politics -
“Playwrights don’t give answers, they ask questions” - Caryl Churchill