Battersea Arts Centre
Reviewed – 12th June 2019
“Campbell is a skilled performer, switching effortlessly between naïve teenager and experienced activist”
Nowadays, being woke is the standard. Yet it is also a given: of course we will be aware of certain issues, and naturally we will lend our voices to the collective. But how do we get there? In this powerful one woman show, Apphia Campbell explains how and why we become activists.
Driven by her love for the song ‘Saint Louis Blues’, Ambrosia is going to college in the city on a voice scholarship. It’s August 2014, just weeks after eighteen-year-old Michael Brown was killed by a white police officer. Ambrosia has been raised to respect the law; when the law doesn’t respect her, it comes as unwelcome shock – one that triggers action. Meanwhile, in 1970s New York, JoAnne Chesimard is experiencing a revelation of her own. Growing up, she was called many things. But now people call her African, an African queen. Inspired, she adopts a new name, Assata, and devotes her life to the Black Panthers. The ensuing hour shows how these two radically different women ended up on the same path, and how they choose to tread.
This is a well-crafted show, compelling and often moving. Accompanied onstage by only a microphone and minimal set, Campbell lets her words speak for themselves. The writing is full of clever details that make her characters engaging to watch; the contrast between the two is used to great effect. Ambrosia’s transformation from ignorant bystander to ardent activist is the perfect method of guiding the audience through Assata’s story and its significance. The mounting sense of disgust at the way both women are treated serves to highlight Campbell’s point: the fight has not been won. Assata and Ambrosia were born fifty years apart, yet they struggle for the same thing.
Campbell is a skilled performer, switching effortlessly between naïve teenager and experienced activist. Her voice is rich and soulful; the songs she performs come straight from the heart of the story as naturally as if they were spontaneous. Of the two performances, Assata feels more earnest and driven. Whilst Ambrosia has great character development, she does feel a little underwritten. Her thoughts and feelings whilst in hiding are explored only fleetingly. The conflict between pleasing her parents and expressing her political freedoms is a really interesting one – again it is quickly bypassed. It leaves a sense of something unfinished, of a story with more questions than answers.
Woke doesn’t quite live up to its potential, but that doesn’t diminish its power. Campbell shows that activists come from all walks of life. Some are born woke, some achieve wokeness – but, however we get there, every voice counts.
Reviewed by Harriet Corke
Photography by Mihaela Bodlovic
Battersea Arts Centre until 22nd June
Previously reviewed at this venue: