By Sarah Downs
I wanted very much to lose myself in Christopher Tajah’s solo show, Under Heaven’s Eyes: the Systemic Systematic Unjustified Killing of Black Lives. Unfortunately I found myself unexpectedly non-plussed at the end of it. Despite the laudable effort and worthy subject matter, the piece falls a bit flat. The writing meanders, from an inchoate sketch of narrative context that almost immediately recedes as we move on through at times overwritten musings, and eventually a litany of several of the (sadly) numerous examples of violence and injustice meted out to black Americans and Brits in the last century. Despite some truly poetic moments, it began to feel a little like a cross between a defeatist character portrait and a Wikipedia entry.
As the lights go up Michael Livings is sitting in his disheveled East London flat, having a Zoom meeting with his children studying in the United States. The sky is dark, and one can hear the wail of a female neighbor nearby. Michael feels the need to comfort her and yet he remains immobile – stymied by his own pain as the world reacts to the recent murder of George Floyd. Locked down during the first months of Covid, Livings feels ever more powerless. He immerses himself in the overwhelming amount of evidence of racist violence toward black people throughout history, and the lack of justice accorded them.
Not the cheeriest of subjects for someone to preoccupy himself with at the best of times, but the forced incarceration, as it were, of the Covid lockdown has given him too much time and too little to do. The ranks of suffering crowds his mind. The material is rich with possibility, but the list does not on its own does not, alas, translate into compelling theater. Something is missing. Tajah accesses and shares his emotions so easily, but we need an organizing throughline to keep the material moving.
I also rather expected a political examintion of the extraordinary amount of racist violence suffered by black people to have turned more directly, well, political. Maybe to include a discussion of the relationship between systemic racism and class jealousy (a fire stoked very easily by unscrupulous ‘leaders’); or the effects of structural poverty, lack of opportunity, insufficient education and even food deserts; or the genesis and effect of ghettoization, and the intentional promulgation of drugs within certain communities. The tentacles of this beast reach into every corner of our lives. And yes, it must stop.
Perhaps as a reflection of Livings’ ruminating, the writing goes in fits and starts. Long pauses interrupt the flow, hampering Tajah’s capacity to build tension. A lack of context or conceptual parameters gives Tajah as an actor nothing to push against, no piece of theatrical flint to strike. As Livings’ despair increases it would make sense for him to grow restless, to pace, even to prowl, but he neither digs in nor lashes out. He is sitting on a powder keg, but the fuse remains unlit.
Mr. Tajah is a fine actor, and would benefit from stronger, more specific direction. As Livings, he starts the evening forlorn and rarely moves beyond that, even as the play’s tone grows more didactic. Tajah should give himself room to express his greater range, and get into the heart of that feeling earlier in the piece. As it is, he saves his best for last, when at the end of the play he takes on the character of Lenny, a Caribbean immigrant to England who endured heinous abuse at the hands of police in 1960’s Leeds. Tajah’s portrayal of the man’s tragic end resonates with tears, as the political becomes vividly personal. That’s the spark, but it comes too late.
Under Heaven’s Eyes, written, performed and directed by Christopher Tajah.
Presented by Pulse-Thought-Spirit Theatre Company at the United Solo Festival. October 3rd at Theatre Row (410 West 42nd Street)