After her sell-out performance at the Festival Fringe with Black is the Colour of My Voice, singer and actress Apphia Campbell returns with another story to tell. In Woke, this brilliant performer merges two civil rights stories in a passionate and heart-breaking show with a strong political, but also distinctly human, message.
Woke is told primarily from the perspective of a college student, Ambrosia, who becomes involved in the Black Lives Matter movement in 2014 during the protests in Ferguson, Missouri after a white police officer killed an unarmed eighteen-year-old black man, Michael Brown. Originally convinced that she will never get into any trouble so long as she protests peacefully and cooperates with the law, the audience joins in Ambrosia’s loss of naiveté as she discovers how the justice system is rigged against her as a black person. Ambrosia’s story is intermixed with glimpses into the life of Black Panther and Black Liberation Army member Assata Shakur who was convicted for killing a police officer in 1977 and forced to seek political asylum in Cuba, where she remains to this day. As Ambrosia reads the autobiography of Shakur she recognises the parallels in their stories, and their similar descent into hopelessness at the possibility of receiving fair treatment from the law.
To say Campbell is a talented performer is an understatement. The beautiful bright clarity and power of her voice is enough to cause tears in the first few minutes of the show, before the audience even knows anything about the plot. By the end, after the room has experienced the story of frustration and loss of innocence, it is hard to keep from sobbing at the emotion and tragic beauty her voice carries. Added to this are the clever particularities she brings to every character. The ingratiating grins of Ambrosia are perfect, and incredibly relatable to anyone who’s been an eighteen-year-old girl with the firmly held belief that as long as she smiles sweetly and follows the rules she’ll always get what she wants. The loss of this attitude is visible on Campbell’s face throughout the show as her eager eyes fade into fear and doubt.
Woke carries its message, for the most part, effectively. Written by Campbell as well, the show has a clear aim of explaining why the Black Lives Matter movement is justified and necessary. This is done powerfully and convincingly, as Ambrosia is so likeable and her encounters with the law so outrageously frustrating. However, the angle of linking the Black Lives Matter with the Black Panther movement has some holes. It is sometimes hard to follow what is going on in Shakur’s storyline, and though the anger conveyed in her scenes powerfully influence how Ambrosia’s scenes are read, it is difficult to be interested in Shakur’s story. I found myself enjoying the music of Shakur’s scenes but eagerly awaiting the returns of Ambrosia’s plot.
However, Apphia Campbell is not to be missed. I would probably recommend seeing a show of hers on any topic on the planet, but the forceful and expertly constructed political message of Woke is both convincing and engaging. This is a show that nearly makes me want to retract every five-star review I’ve given so far in the Fringe, as Woke truly stands leagues ahead of other shows. Everyone should see this superb piece of theatre.
Photo credit: Mihaela Bodlovic