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debbie tucker green & Epistemic Liberation

Debbie tucker green, a black British filmmaker, playwright, screenwriter, and director, best known for her thought-provoking and lyrically written plays, deals with the politics and aesthetics of trauma and poetics of absence. Her name, written in lowercase, is a mode of “balancing disparate elements of a single plane” (Gardener, 2003). This philosophy permeates her plays written from a black consciousness and gives equal importance and representation to marginalised and socio-politically minor voices. Her stage is highly politicised, leaving her audiences navigating deep, truthful, and human stories through a vastly contextualised spectacle and poetic orchestra (Sawyers, 2018). Tucker green’s plays investigate social issues, trauma and violence, and human rights, constituting them a collection of universal plays. Delivering those realities through a black feminist perspective, tucker green is intentional in representing human, universal stories through the prism of deeply personal subjective human experience (Sawyers, 2018).

Motifs of poverty, misogyny, rape, and violence, to name a few, represent a unique and commonly overlooked voice that brings into context the nuanced experiences of catastrophic and life-changing events for underrepresented demographics. AIDS, genocide, domestic violence, incest, civil war, and public execution, desensitised and dislocated within a Western public awareness, are accessed through the personal and emotional subjecthood of the characters, which are musically and poetically woven into the dramatic composition of tucker green’s theatre. The stories encountered in tucker green’s theatre engage a new form of storytelling that validates minority voices and nuanced socio-political experiences. Tucker green’s theatre is intentional by design. It seeks to change the scope of dramatic epistemology by validating human stories from people and societies misrepresented by the epistemic violence of western media and systemic whiteness. A political tool that reigns in power dynamics, cultural codes, and dialectical identities, tucker green’s work is a practice of Black performance theory. Through the historical and contextual stories and events encountered on her stage, the linguistic and dramatic structure represents diverse lexicons, cultural codes, and societal stereotypes that challenge hegemonic structures of narrative.

Image 1: debbie tucker green, playwright.

The plays, classified as In-Yer-Face theatre, redefine the genre as they move away from the provocative visual frontality that audiences commonly encounter in plays of the likes of Sarah Kane and Mark Ravenhill (Sawyers, 2018). Tucker green provokes questions of humanity at large and exposes the structures of power and oppression within the context of her plays by theatricalising deeply personal stories of trauma through language. Language and dramatic composition work to reference nuanced perception and to create a stark commentary on existing epistemologies of trauma (Davis, 1997). The drama takes place through language instead of violent images and gore or passionate and explicit pleasure on stage (Sawyers, 2018). Tucker green tells the stories of the under-represented and, through those stories, responds to the violence of hegemonic narratives.

Tucker green adopts a poetic form that offers her audiences different viewpoints and epistemologies outside the socio-political hegemony. These alternative epistemologies challenge legitimised knowledge claims, exposing her audience to the diverse world around them (Collins, 2002). Tucker green’s plays are a self-defined perspective of a Black woman written and theatricalised through black-feminist epistemology and call “into question the content of what currently passes as truth and simultaneously challenges the process of arriving at that truth” (Collins, 2002, p. 271). The poetic structure of her plays sustains an epistemology like that of the griot historian – a warrior of intellectual boundaries that fights to destroy political limitations (Omolade, 1990). The griot, a member of a class of poets and storytellers who maintain a tradition of oral history, comes from West African tradition and is renowned as “keeper(s) of the culture” (Davis, 1997, p. 80). Their legacy, in modern contexts, is survived through Black poetry and music, which developed as an authentic expression of a people and their history. The poetry and verse in tucker green’s plays imbue the culture of the griot and, as such, has led to her being labeled a ‘sister griot’. This sister griot “takes rhetorical criticism to another level by illuminating the liberatory strategies of Black women in their attempts to transcend the essentialist ideologies that neglect their experiences, lives, and critiques from the discourse of human communication” (Davis, 1997, p. 80).

Image 2: 'born bad' (2003). A tale of a dysfunctional family.

Tucker green’s plays are marked by a chaotic dialogue: incessant repetition, overlap and interruption, and metrical silences. Language in each play, for each character, has its idiosyncratic role in building the characters’ lives or emphasizing a certain context. Poetry in her plays is structured to the rhythm based on the characters’ cultural and historical backgrounds, such as the trisyllabic metre of patois or the incomplete speech of a British West Indian accent. Critics have confessed to not following tucker green’s dialogue, denouncing the speed and rhythm of dialects as disengaging, superfluous, unclear, and challenging to decipher (Letts, 2005). That these comments come exclusively from male critics, with unashamedly “middle-class, white ear[s]” (Letts, 2008), testifies to the limited aesthetic imports effective in mainstream theatre (Osborne, 2010; Abram, 2014). The verbal dexterity of the language reforms the epistemology in storytelling in theatre, moving away from the cultural and historical mainstreaming and cannoning of human narratives.

Framed within a Black cosmology that ties together the past, present, and future of the race, tucker green’s plays explore various dialectical and dialogical relationships to oppression. This kind of rhetorical practice is rooted in emancipation that provides black women with agency and reclaims “the distinctive rhetorical tradition of intellectualism of black womanhood for future generations of thinkers” (Davis, 1997, p. 80). Tucker green’s focus on language transcends powerful imperialist paradigms of the black identity that overlook the epistemologies of black women and men in Britain and worldwide. In using different dialects such as patois, African American vernacular, and black British slang, her plays stand against the discursive formations of power in theatre and their hegemonic influence on dialectical and dialogical access to human stories. They act as a rhetorical statement that exposes how often discourse on difference usually privileges whiteness.The notion of difference is relational and so always positioned in relation to the norm, which is whiteness (Mirza, 1997). In such a politicised construction, other differences of class, ethnicity, etc., are subdued in the selective valorising of black/white differences. Tucker green’s postmodern black feminist approach operates beyond racism and oppression to recognise the fluidity and fragmented nature of racialised and gendered identities (Mirza, 1997, p. 13).

Image 3: 'random', TV movie (2011).

Random (2010) is a one-woman play packed full of powerful and punchy dialect exemplifying tucker green’s success in combating social and cultural hegemony. The one-woman play examines how a random act of knife crime can change a family’s life forever. It is a reference to the growing teenage knife crime in London. Despite it being listed as the biggest threat to London after terrorism (Goddard, 2009), thus a broader societal issue, it was localised to the black community as a result of Tony Blair’s public outcry to them to act against the rise in violent teenage deaths. This paradigm is contextualised in this play through language and dramatic structure. The structure of the play and its linguistic form creates a palpable tension between the characters’ personal stories and the public reality that sits within the audience. Random is not a play that solves the issue of knife crime in the UK but instead thrusts the now isolated experiences of black and brown communities into a collective consciousness. The structure of the drama and the language allows tucker green to present the effects on individuals rather than attempt a social diagnosis (Abram, 2014). Debbie tucker green’s work is conscious of mobilising its audiences, and her hyper-realist dramatic modes critique the realist suspension of disbelief that distracts the audience from an awareness of themselves and the illusion of the play.

Random goes beyond realism as the single performer directly confronts her audience without the cushioning effect of any other characters, stage setting, or props (Abram, 2014). The speech in the play, a British West Indian dialect, punctures the air with the social and personal contexts of the characters’ experiences. The pronunciation, rhythm, and slang of this dialect are key in structuring the characters’ lives and creating a contextualised narrative that employs the political discourses of knife crime at the time and is juxtaposed with the real emotional and traumatic experiences of the characters. Tucker green navigates themes of national and international importance with a decisive focus on staging the family in all its complexities (Abram, 2014). Random follows the details of a normal and familiar family morning punctuated by alarm clocks and morning routines (Abram, 2014, p. 4). This play presents black Britain at its most mundane until these familiar rituals are unexpectedly interrupted by news of the son/brother’s murder. The characters, played by one actress, take the experimental form of a monologue, in which she plays the multiple parts of family members, work colleagues, schoolteacher, school friends, and police. The concern for human relationships is emphasised by tucker green’s dramatic style, which does not use proper nouns. ‘Sister’, ‘Brother’, ‘Mum’, and others are identified by their multiple relationships with one another rather than being named as independent individuals (Abram, 2014). The absence of individual names mimics the “dynamics of real relational dialogue, which assumes the attention of its interlocutors rather than hailing them by name, refracting the spectators’ experience of the play through the characters’ participation in the family” (Abram, 2014).

Image 4: 'random', TV Movie (2011). This version visually features the other characters, like 'Brother' (above).

The poetic absence in tucker green’s plays is also characterised by silence amidst the proliferation of speech, where much remains unsaid. In these curated silences is where most of the drama and impact take place (Abram, 2014). The protracted silences and frenetic dialogue characteristic of the plays: born bad, stoning mary, and generations, which prevent characters from speaking and being heard, are reversed in random. Conversely, random is monologic, and all speech emphasises the character’s interconnectivity, exaggerates the failures of communication, and gradually gives way to moments of quiet. The opening polyphony of family voices in the beginning is marked by the fact that various characters are unable to inhabit the stage simultaneously and so struggle to hear or speak to each other, creating moments of silence and incompletion. This, along with the structure of prose and metonym, jerk at the audience’s ability to comprehend, directing much of the comprehension to self. In moments of silence, the definitive speech highlights what is unsaid. In these emphasised moments, the audience is offered no shelter from the protagonist’s accusations, as her unitary presence and gaze are directed offstage. If spectators remain quiet, trained in contemporary British theatrical convention, they become complicit in the very failure to speak, which ‘Sister’ disparages in her monologue (Abram, 2014). This silence acquires a perlocutionary force and is strategic in interconnecting the personal to the public. Random is known to curate silences and moments of reflection from audiences: reports of school groups getting noticeably quieter in the second half, after enthusiastically cheering the representations of youth culture in the first (performance of 2008), to other critical moments of “pin-drop silence” (Billington, 2008) among the audience, as the weight of realisation, complicity and guilt, burden the audience. The language, tied to the structure of dividing random into two distinct halves, induces a marked shift and positions these audiences to consider their access to voice and their responsibility to speak up (Abram, 2014).

Tucker green’s plays require a new way of positioning oneself as an audience member that moves beyond conventional theatrical devices that elicit compassion and empathy (Fragkou & Goddard, 2013, p. 153). The emotional subjectivity and the empathy that it inspires is a powerful tool that makes tucker green’s theatre an emerging force to destruct political limitations and liberate all humanity (Omolade, 1990). The Black feminist thought through and through reconceptualises the social relations of domination and resistance (Collins, 2002). The rich contexts of those she represents layer her work and act as a tool to tackle epistemic violence that operates through structures of whiteness. Debbie tucker green’s plays reflect the need to actively work towards challenging legitimised epistemologies.

Biographical Sources

Abram, N. (2014). Staging the unsayable: debbie tucker green's political theatre. Journal of Contemporary Drama in English, 2(12), 113-130.

Aragay, M., & Montforte, E. (2013). Racial Violence, Witnessing and Emancipated Spectatorship in The Colour of Justice, Fallout and random. In V. Angelaki, Contemporary British Theatre: Breaking New Ground (pp. 96-120). Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Billington, M. (2020, March 26). truth and reconciliation – review. The Guardian.

Collins, P. H. (2002). Black Feminism, Knowledge, and Power. In Black Femenist Thought (pp. 227-271). New York: Routledge.

Davis, O. I. (1997). A Black Woman as Rhetorical Critic: Validating Self and Violating the Space of Otherness. Bilingual Research, 77-90.

Fragkou, M., & Goddard, L. (2013). Acting/ In Action, Staging Human Rights in debbie tucker green's Royal Court Plays. In V. Angelaki, Contemporary British Theatre: Breaking New Ground (pp. 145-166). Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Gardner, L. (2005). debbie tucker green on Why She's Still Not Sure She's a Playwright. The Guardian. Retrieved December 31st, 2018, from The Guardian.

- (2020, March 26). Born Bad. The Guardian.

Goddard, L. (2009). Death never used to be for the young: Grieving Teenage Murder in debbie tucker green's random. Women: A Cultural Review, 299-309.

green, d. t. (2005). stoning mary. London: Nick Hern Books.

green, d. t. (2008). random. London: Nick Hern Books.

Lo, J., & Gilbert, H. (2002). Toward a Topography of Cross-Cultural Theatre Praxis. TDR, 31-53.

McHugh, N. (2004). Telling Her Own Truth: June Jordan, Standard English and the Epistemology of Ignorance. In V. Kinloch, & M. Grebowicz, Still Seeking an Attitude (pp. 87-99). Oxford: Lexington Books.

Mirza, H. (1997). Mapping a Genealogy of Black British Feminism. In Black British Feminism: A Reader (pp. 1-28). London: Routledge.

Osborne, D. (2010). debbie tucker green and Dona Daley: Two Neo-millennial Black British Women Playwrights. Antares: Letras e Humanidades, 25-55.

Sawyers, L. (2018). Traum-A-Rhythmia On Debbie Tucker Green’s In-Yer-Ear Stage. Sillages critiques: Esthétiques de l’absence: Voix de l’absence, voix absentes, 25(25).

Stoning Mary Reviews. (2005). Theatre Record.

Image Sources


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Gina Darwin-Gitonga

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