Gate Theatre, London – until 27 May 2017
Off West End Awards winner Frankie Bradshaw (Best Set Design, Adding Machine at The Finborough) strikes again – the Gate Theatre is transformed into a ramshackle Havana apartment for Assata Taught Me. It’s a mixture of colour and disarray – corrugated iron and stone prop up the cracked paint walls in equal measure and loose cables run through the collapsing concrete ceiling. But this apartment, this safe haven for wanted American black revolutionary Assata (Adjoa Andoh) is full of life, of vitality and infused with the essence of the Caribbean. It’s earthy yet modern, gritty but full of excitement and vibrancy.
Richard Hammarton conjures up the impression of the Cuban zest for life and party atmosphere with a fusion of Latin American music and Drum and Bass. When the beat drops, the action really heats up. All in all, Assata gives off a semblance of uneasy peacefulness, content with her world yet paranoid that her past will rush to catch up with her. So, when cheeky, charming university student Fanuco (Kenneth Omole in his professional debut) turns up, she worries that her already crumbling apartment will take her refuge down with it. Against her better judgment, she opens up to his youthful vitality and teaches him to better himself – a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Writer Kalungi Ssebandeke’s first full-length play has an appealing chemistry, an aptly paced story that balances heart-warming with incendiary, but one that by the end burns out of control, as teacher and student turn guns on each other instead of on the world.
Assata Taught Me is built on the contrasting personalities of its two characters, opposing forces that attract rather than annihilate. Omole’s Fanuco has a cocky naivety; he struts through life thinking that his good looks and disarming smile will be enough to get him by. Yet under a sculpted physique lies a thirst for knowledge, a need to better himself and escape what he considers to be a life wasted in Cuba – the bright lights and curvaceous women of Miami are calling. For a professional debut, Omole is a pleasant watch, jumping between petulance, grief and seductively disarming with a lilting grace. By the end though, he is completely outplayed by the all-consuming performer that he plays opposite.
Based on Assata Shakur, one of the FBI’s most women, a black revolutionary and liberator-cum-terrorist, Andoh has an inspirational character to portray. And she takes full advantage. Assata Taught Me is less of a performance and more of a documentary, so convincing is Andoh’s inhabitation within Assata’s skin. She stalks around in pitch black, the atmosphere crackling with her electric energy. Prickly, harsh and standoffish, she turns to her grandmother for moral guidance and in turn softens to her student. He, like the audience, hangs off Andoh’s every word – whether it be preached like the second coming, spat with venom and vitriol for her motherland, or amid a torrent of emotional grief that finally bursts from its dam, Andoh speaks with integrity and a fervid respect for her heritage. Rationale and logic battles with wit and warmth – comedy perfectly entwined with gut-wrenching sadness and almost ritualistic fervour. Andoh has all the elements perfectly under control and yet gives the impression of bottled lightning, a prowling feline with her fur on edge, a snake on the verge of striking out and taking down anything in its path.
Lynette Linton’s direction of Assata Taught Me balance a number of aspects and angles on a knifepoint, placing the audience on opposing sides of the stage to reinforce the outside world slowly baring down upon the wanted woman. But the show is anticlimactic, it rushes too fast to its conclusion and cannot regain control. With the pressure building, a more impactful finale would be to leave the lid on and let the audience surmise what will eventually happen when the inevitable chaos explodes out. A disappointing end to an otherwise exceptional play.