Battersea Arts Centre, London – until 22 June 2019
On social media and the digital arena, ‘Black Lives Matter’ and civil rights in general have long been debated, their importance firmly impressed on the public consciousness. However, in terms of the African-American experience in British Fringe theatre, it has been notably absent – until now. Written and performed by Apphia Campbell, Woke connects the experiences of the civil rights movement in the 1960s-70s with events of the present day. Through two very different women, we see how the times they live in shape their personal circumstances and the world around them.
Forty-plus years ago, JoAnne Deborah Byron begins her personal odyssey, reclaiming her ‘African-American-ness’ (at a time when such terms weren’t in common parlance) and changing her name to Assata Shakur. Joining the Black Panther movement puts Assata on the watchlist of the authorities, and endures surveillance and harassment. After many of her fellow comrades in ‘the struggle’ are jailed or killed, Assata is herself imprisoned for the death of a state trooper. But two years after her initial sentence, she receives help to break out of prison and she claims political asylum in Cuba to live the rest of her days there, writing about her life and black consciousness.
Meanwhile in the present, Ambrosia turns her back on her father’s wish to attend dentistry school and instead attend a college where she can immerse herself in the study of black literature and politics. She soon finds, however, that her middle class upbringing is challenged is encourage to go to Ferguson – a suburb of St Louis – and see a very different world to the one she’s used to.
There’s a line at the beginning of Nina Simone’s ‘Mississippi Goddam’ where she says “I mean every word I say”. The same could be said for Campbell, who sings and intertwines the Blues and other heartfelt tunes within the twin narrative threads, aurally connecting the emotional journey of the women and events in America over the past four decades. The music also serves as a way of expressing what prose alone cannot convey.
Asides from the music, the narrative thread that connects the two women is the blatant disregard for rights ‘guaranteed’ under the U.S. Constitution and the ‘kangaroo courts’ that supersede due process, harking back to the days of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird.
Rage at social issues is one thing, but it’s harder to craft a show that articulates the sentiment and engages with the ‘agnostic’ about the why the actions of the status quo is abhorrent. Campbell, however, circumvents any notions of didactism, naturally enagaging the audience’s empathy.
For both women, their decision to stay – and be powerless to challenge one’s oppressors – or to not, and live in exile beyond the reach of ‘The Man’ is at the heart of the matter. Neither choice is easy, but once you see how the world ‘really works’, it can’t be unseen and how it’s changed you will dictate your priorities…
© Michael Davis 2019
Woke runs at Battersea Arts Centre until 22nd June.
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