Watching Under Heaven’s Eyes, a one-person show delivered over Zoom, I was acutely aware of two positions of privilege – one of being a white woman observing the reality of being a Black person living in the 21st century, and one of being able to watch a wonderful performance by Christopher Tajah of his solo play.
It takes the framing device of a father in the UK, of Jamaican ancestry (the title of the play refers to those ancestors watching over their descendants, from the stars in the sky), recording a message to his children. They are on exchange in the US during two pandemics: not just the worry of COVID-19, but also of racism, highlighted by the murder of George Floyd.
In describing and evaluating this “pandemic of racism”, Tajah covers a wide variety of cases, topics, and history. In the UK, the treatment of the Windrush generation, the minority ethnic community who lived in the Grenfell tower. And, also here, Black people more likely to be stopped by the police, or arrested with force.
By seguing into statistics and the need for “permission from society” to cross an invisible line, Tajah’s play moves more into the area of part speech, part intimate discourse. The emotional heft of the discussion and the precise nature of the delivery makes every Zoom performance immediate and unique, a real-time connection between performer and audience.
This play is potent, honest, and true. A refrain of “it has to stop” hits the heart over and over. The phrase “it might sound a little bit crazy” punctuates the monologue. A toughness rises to the top by the ending, where “we need to find the now in us” is repeated over and over. The language is thoughtful, raw, and full of sadness and anger.
The story of Emmett Till, the teenager tortured and shot for looking at a white woman, in 1955. Of Trayvon Martin, who was attacked and killed in 2012, for being in the wrong neighbourhood. Of Cherry Groce, paralysed by a police shooting in her house. Hashtag “say her name” for the Black women who were brutalised, failed, unprotected by those sworn in to uphold the values of fairness, for everyone.
I applaud the idea behind Under Heaven’s Eyes. There are moments of human connection which really resonate: the elderly white lady in the park who thinks “it must be so awful, being Black”; the children in the USA who “don’t have guns … do you?”. And Christopher’s character himself, the father who recalls being told to leave the King’s Road as a young man because he “didn’t look like someone who would shop there”.
This play will make you think, and might even encourage audiences to seek out the stories of those across multi-ethnic communities who were – and are – pioneers, peacemakers, and provocateurs.
Fringe review: ****
Under Heaven’s Eyes is live-streaming at 8pm each night at the Brighton Fringe until 27 June. Book your ticket here. At the performance I reviewed, 18 June, the running time was 70 minutes.