Which of us can truly imagine themselves in another’s skin? How can those with a white skin understand what it is like to have a black one? How can a young middle class student understand how and why somebody becomes a terrorist and a fugitive?
Apphia Campbell’s one-woman show explores what it is to be young and black in America and compares it to the situation forty years ago at the height of the Black Panther movement.
As the lights come up we are immersed in a montage of news bulletins reporting on civil unrest before Ms Campbell, standing on a box centre-stage, launches into a blistering rendition of the St Louis Blues – her singing alone would be worth the price of a ticket.
We meet Ambrosia, a respectable a middle-class Afro-American from Pittsburgh whose believer-in-law-and-order father wants his daughter to enter the family business. She just “wants to be free” and enrols at St Louis University, reading Black American Literature. Her arrival in the Missouri city coincides with the uprising in nearby Ferguson following the unlawful shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, by a white police officer. After being spitefully issued with a series of police fines during a protest march which she is unable to pay, Ambrosia becomes the subject of an arrest warrant and thereby, a criminal.
Throughout the play we also meet Assata Olugbala Shakur (born Joanna Deborah Chesimard) who was convicted of murdering a policeman in 1973 and, after escaping from gaol, became a focal point for black activists in the States. Assata is still alive, living in exile in Cuba and is still high on the FBI’s most wanted list.
Although Assata was a “notorious” Black Panther activist and Ambrosia a “humble” student involved in the Black Lives Matter movement, comparisons are drawn and we see how both women get involved in events which have their own frightening momentum.
Ms Campbell’s play, which she wrote with Meredith Yarbrough, weaves a rich and complex multi-layered web which is spun with unrelenting speed and energy but at no point confuses or leaves behind its audience. It cleverly illustrates what we already know, that plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose and that right-minded people will always stand against injustice wherever they are, whatever their race or religion. Those people will, at best, be labelled troublemakers or, at worst, terrorists – and one should never forget that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. As in all cases, the further one gets from one’s roots, the more one feels affinity towards them. That affinity can lead to wistful nostalgia or bloody riots.
With Woke Apphia Campbell provides a masterclass in writing and acting. Her virtuoso performance was faultless and a privilege to witness. The play is a powerful indictment of race-relations, past and present, in America invoked by the story of two women, forty years apart, who find a certain unpredictable inevitability in the course they must take. Ironically, they both discover that freedom can be as subjugating as the chains that once, metaphorically, bound them – but at least they didn’t have Donald Trump to contend with. Michael Hasted 24th January 2019