I’ve been to a lot of theatre; to shows that scream at me to hear what they say, demanding I fall in with their line of thinking. I’ve been forced to leave my seat and swaps places with the cast. But these in-your-face tactics don’t work for me: they just make me feel attacked and I shut down. Woke however, written by Apphia Campbell and Meredith Yarbrough, is a masterpiece of educational storytelling, embracing an enormously complex issue across a huge timespan and distilling it into a hugely enjoyable hour that left me feeling empowered to be part of making change.
The framework of Black oppression is simply set as the show begins, delivered through vintage radio reports. It is centuries of subjugation and protest, so how do you begin to see the wood for the trees and understand it, especially as a white theatregoer in 2021? Walking slowly alone onto the Rose Theatre’s big stage, Campbell‘s Ambrosia offers herself up as an example of an individual in the midst of all this, and it’s through this single human, emotional thread that she binds me in, making me part of the story.
She starts off as a naïve young woman, still slightly dependent on her dad, and who loves the music of Bessie Smith. She’s fun and loves to sing, sometimes rather inappropriately. Heading off to university, she declares “I’m going to be free”. However, she soon wakes up to the reality that this cannot be true in today’s systemically racist society. She unintentionally finds herself involved in the Ferguson Civil Rights protests, following the shooting by a police officer of Black teenager Michael Brown. As events play out, voices such as hers are seen to be silenced through brutality and economic manipulation. Paralleling her realisation, we learn the story of Assata Shakur, a member of the Black Panthers, who was violently persecuted for resistance activities, and was ultimately forced into exile to avoid imprisonment.
But Assata’s struggle was five decades ago: how can this inequality still be occurring today? Hearing these stories, we come to realise that it happens because people allow it to happen. And it’s not enough to know about it – change needs to be made consciously. This performance hands us personal responsibility, as Ambrosia quotes Assata from the present day: “If you are deaf, dumb, and blind to what’s happening in the world, you’re under no obligation to do anything. But if you know what’s happening and you don’t do anything but sit on your ass, then you’re nothing but a punk.”
It’s rare to see a performer onstage quite as talented as Campbell. She has an incredible voice, both as a singer and manifesting multiple characters. Her physical performance is astonishing, particularly as the weight of invisible chains is made corporeal. She is focussed, confident and engaging, comfortably executing extremes of both humour and bitter trauma. Supporting her is an impeccably curated soundtrack, which draws on many aspects of Black history and culture, including powerful gospel and blues, and a subtle yet effective lighting design that adds additional layers of presence to the community portrayed.
Full of facts and information, insight, emotion and somehow even laughter, this is a stunning production that manages to entertain enormously, even as it simultaneously challenges its audience to wake up and take action. Don’t miss it!
Written by: Apphia Campbell and Meredith Yarbrough
Woke is playing until 30 June at Rose Theatre. Further information and booking via the below link.