“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.
“a tribute to the true soul of carnival, one that has us honour its significance while we dance in our seats.”
Carnival means many things to many people. Nadine hears the spirits of her ancestors reclaiming the streets they weren’t allowed to call their own. This year, they will guide her as she competes for her chance to be seen. Jade sees a community under threat. Persuaded by her activist friend Nisha, she plans to deliver a speech encouraging people to make their voices heard. But the carnival is not the safe and joyful place it was when they were children. As their big moment edges closer, Nadine and Jade are forced to confront the dark side of home.
Cramming the whole of Notting Hill Carnival into Theatre503 might seem like an impossible task, but Rebekah Murrell’s production manages it with ease. Writer Yasmin Joseph paints an evocative picture of busy streets and sensory overloads, with locals jostling for space among curious outsiders. There are snapshots of the carnival from all sides: belligerent neighbours, nosey journalists, street vendors holding the same spot they have occupied for fifty years. Although the stage itself is relatively plain – adorned with Caribbean flags and minimal set pieces – Joseph’s script fizzes with energy that fills every corner of the space.
There is plenty of social commentary, some overt and some extremely subtle. The girls are fetishised for their race (‘you two look proper tropical,’ says one charmer) and slut-shamed by the men they reject. Carnival goers since childhood, they lament the rising price of old favourites and the influx of rich white hipsters. Nisha prides herself on being politically aware but, next to veteran activists, she seems hopelessly naïve. Scenes will often pause to make way for soca music, or end with a sudden outburst of movement. The integration of real carnival atmosphere shows the value of incorporating seemingly non-theatrical elements into plays; not only does it elevate Joseph’s script, but makes the whole thing all the more enjoyable.
The acting is assured, the dynamic between Sharla Smith (Nadine), Sapphire Joy (Jade), and Annice Bopari (Nisha) is incredibly natural. Smith and Joy slip in and out of characters with ease, playing seventy-year-old street vendors with the same vivacity as they do their central roles. Bopari is endearing as Nisha, prompting laughter at her over-earnestness and sympathy for her isolation.
Of the three, Nisha feels a little underdeveloped, her story a little vague. It would have been great to hear more about her connection to carnival and motivation for her activism in greater depth. But this is only a minor criticism, one that didn’t affect my enjoyment of the performance. J’ouvert is a tribute to the true soul of carnival, one that has us honour its significance while we dance in our seats.