random and generations are two plays by debbie tucker green, revived here by Tinuke Craig, about the effect a young black Londoner being stabbed has on his family and about the AIDS crisis in South Africa respectively. I probably don’t need to mention that it shouldn’t be me writing this review. debbie tucker green is one of my favourite playwrights and I shouldn’t be the one writing this review. But I am the one writing this review.
Theatre is, before it is art, a gathering. It is a witnessing of events, of a performance of events, by a collection of strangers. In random and generations, debbie tucker green and Tinuke Craig force that witnessing to be a political act. We never forget that what we are doing is watching, seeing, and remaining passive. We are never allowed to forget that in that room, we form a community.
Luyanda Lennox Jezile leads the South African Cultural Choir, who sing for us, to us, with us, throughout. We unconsciously, or maybe consciously, form a bond between us and them/the performer and the audience/the subject and the witness. Craig’s direction pulls the audience in quickly. Designer Alex Lowde’s bright, bright, blue wall at the back is intoxicating, and the clothes and the song and the smiles are galvanising. Even before the play has begun, the choir sings. We witness even when we aren’t watching. We become culpable.
In the interval, the choir sings in the foyer. The circular stairs and balcony echo the rounded thrust stage, and everyone looks down on the choir below. The community is not allowed to dissipate after the show ends. It is carried inside us before the beginning of the play and extends out into the car park after the theatre has closed for the night. This community has been witness to something, all of us together.
generations is a play that leaks out like a tap being turned off in slow motion. At first there is a huge gushing of life and love and laughter, so fast you can barely catch it before it’s disappeared. Then, so slow you barely notice it happening, it slows to steady pace. It’s not as fast or as full of life as before, but it continues nonetheless. It slows further, less water leaving, and then even less. Until there is just one drip, which hangs on the tap, not quite ready to fall off yet.
Tinuke Craig never lets this show be gratuitous. It is never a spectacle. It is a shared moment. generations is one scene, which happens five times. Each time, a member of the family leaves the stage – an imprint or an echo stays behind. The leaving is never explained, never addressed, never mourned. tucker green is asking why we won’t just talk about it. Laurietta Essien holds her own amidst the chaos of the first scene, and stands strong and centre stage when all is quiet. Her grief is never allowed to settle. She is the final family member to leave, and when she does, we notice Okon Jones and Cleo Sylvestre have collected all the dying and disappearances that have come before, and let the final scene be a eulogy.
Witnessing is an essential part of theatre, just as it is an essential part of the justice system. In random, the sister talks a lot about the witnesses to her brother’s stabbing. It has to be him, it is definitely him, because there are witnesses, we have his ID, it is definitely him. His mother is insistent she sees his body so she can know, she can witness that it is her son. Witnessing becomes a kind of closure.
Petra Letang is incredibly skillful as she darts in and out of playing each family member. Her portrayals are sensitive and nuanced, each movement purposeful in its thrust. She holds my attention for the whole hour. At times, she perhaps lets the characters slip a little, in lieu of getting the words exactly right. As the mother of the story discovers her son has been killed, Letang’s performance is breathless and yet measured. She looks as if she has had all the air knocked out of her. The emotion is always held back, constantly, constantly not allowed to come through. Against the bright, blue wall, a glowing digital clock blinks at us. At the moment we are told of the brother’s death, the clocks rewinds to nothing. Time is freezing, jolting, and moving strangely in the way that trauma forces it to.
This play is deeply political, painfully so. But I’m white and middle class. I don’t want to try and make a savvy political comment about London and stabbings. It feels a bit like all the white music critics doing endless takes on Childish Gambino’s ‘This is America’.
why do middle class white people think their inner city poc knife crime takes are in any way useful? it’s been days of inane chatter + I can’t take it any more. just bc u moved to ends after uni doesn’t justify your ITV Ross Kemp special episode level takes on roadmen
— bridget minamore (@bridgetminamore) April 14, 2018
I don’t think debbie tucker green cares if critics like her plays or not. In an interview with Lyn Gardner in 2005, she says that people trip over themselves because she’s a black playwright, and they wouldn’t do that if she worked in a shop. She doesn’t write for the critics. She writes for the people who will feel it. That’s not the people who live in Chichester and go to Chichester Festival Theatre on a Thursday night.
I sort of don’t need to tell you who was in that room, watching those plays. I think you already know. I think we all knew that wasn’t who should have been seeing it.
Despite all that, we still come together and watch. Plato argues that theatre, an act of spectating, is unethical in its very existence. What tucker green’s plays ask us to do is to realise that we are not merely spectators, but witnesses. The witnessing is, perhaps, voyeuristic in a way that it has to be if a large group of older, middle-class, white people watch shows about black people’s trauma. With witnessing comes responsibility, and Craig pushes her audience to see, acknowledge, and understand the trauma of random and generations; it is a trauma that is so often hidden.
Neither of the women behind this play allow their audiences to walk out unencumbered. Instead, they take us into a community, and then encourage us to not just passively watch and see.
random/generations is at Chichester Festival Theatre until June 2nd. For more details, click here.