Woke (Battersea Arts Centre)

Woke (Battersea Arts Centre, until June 22nd)

“Black Lives Matter” is a movement that has become a rallying cry over decades. Yet unchecked atrocities in the ongoing civil rights struggle in America and indeed around the world mean it is in serious danger of becoming little more than a clichéd hashtag.

However watered down it has become, it remains a clarion call to action and anyone who goes to see the electrifying performance piece Woke just to try and demonstrate they care about ethnic minority issues is in for a very rude awakening.

In the passionate, powerful and unmissable drama by Apphia Campbell at Battersea Arts Centre the writer and performer defies her audience to go back outside and do something more than grimace and shake their heads in outraged sadness at racism and injustice.

The award-winning monologue that took the Edinburgh Fringe by storm over the last two years has been touring briefly before heading back to Edinburgh in August, but is at Battersea for a fortnight and you need to see it as a matter of urgency – not just as a compelling and breathtaking piece of theatre but also for the important subject matter and answers it demands.

The fast-paced show links the true story of black activist Assata Shakur in the 1970s with the fictional student Ambrosia, caught up in the Ferguson riots of 2014 following the fatal police shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Missouri. Although the stories are 42 years apart the uncomfortable message at the core of the play is that attitudes and prejudices have remained virtually unchanged.

The word “woke” was traditionally used as slang by African-American communities and especially came to mean being aware of social discrimination, racism or injustice. It’s become a watchword for the Black Lives Matter Movement – a call to arms against the various racial injustices still occurring in the US and beyond – yet trivial overuse in the present day has also watered it down.

Campbell’s Woke, co-written with Meredith Yarbrough and directed by Caitlin Skinner, is about as far removed from being diluted as it could be, with intensely human stories presented in shocking fullness against a soundtrack of gospel, blues and original music which play an important part in setting the mood. Well-intentioned tweets and admiring the production are simply not enough of a response.

Campbell is a force to be reckoned with: her stunning solo show Black is the Color of My Voice, inspired by the life of jazz singer and activist Nina Simone, was recently a huge hit at the Trafalgar Studios and plays at the Vaults, London, for a short spell from the end of this month.

In Woke she plays the two characters, giving rumbustious vent to the impassioned cries of a real-life activist and a fictional young girl about to enrol in college. As their very personal tales unfold – these are very real people, not just faceless characters in a broader narrative – there is a sense of admiration for both sharpened by an indignant despair. This is a work that is deeply political but never preachy, using personal stories to make its important point. Campbell doesn’t just invite the audience to watch, she demands them to be moved, shocked and motivated and dares them to add their own voices to the protest.

We see the journey of Black Panther Assata Shakur with Campbell unwrapping the background to her story, the reasons she became an activist and the shocking police attitudes that led to her arrest and conviction for killing a New Jersey state trooper in 1973. Shakur escaped from prison in 1979 and fled to Cuba; she remains on the FBI’s most wanted list and President Trump called for her return when he was elected. This is dangerous territory, yet Campbell’s performance elicits empathy with Shakur, giving us a glimpse of her life before the incident and providing a helpful framework to her declaration, “We have nothing to lose but our chains.” The choice across the generations is simple: flee, or stay and fight.

But this is no dry history lesson. The more up to date Ambrosia is a naive student who goes to a rally more interested in the music and in a guy she likes. She is told by her father that she has the right to take charge of her own life and future. She begins by singing the songs of others, notably Blues in the Night, but her experiences expose her own voice as innocent behaviour (such as walking in the road) is targeted by police and spirals into exorbitant and unjust fines. The disgraceful way in which on-the-spot penalties mount up for the young woman bewildered by the oppression makes even the relaxed performance atmosphere of Battersea Arts Centre tense.

These empowering stories overlap, prejudices criss cross through the ages, and bewildered irritation becomes anger and activism. Both characters awake to the sickening realisation that so many years after the ending of slavery for African-Americans the chains still shackle their people.

The staging is simple, with just a few items of furniture and props used, meaning it is Campbell’s fiery and formidable performance that is always to the fore. It never feels rushed and there is poetry, balance and sensitivity mixed with the rage. It may be incendiary but it also dares to be optimistic.

Apphia Campbell’s play is only 60 minutes long but it’s one of the most meaningful hours you are likely to experience in a theatre. Inside the auditorium it sends shivers down the spine; outside it is likely to fill audiences with as much resolve as it does in the hearts of the characters portrayed. This is an awakening both on and off stage.

David Guest

Image, Mihaela Bodlovic

A version of this review originally appeared on The Reviews Hub