list.co.uk/festival Woke | FESTIVAL FEATURES
EYES WIDE OPEN
Apphia Campbell chats to Gareth K Vile as she returns to the Fringe with Woke, a show about prejudice that she hopes will change perceptions
I n Apphia 2014, Campbell’s Black is the Colour of My introduced an Voice exciting performer and writer who was capable of connecting the struggle for human rights with its contemporary and historical context. With Woke, Campbell returns as part of the Made in Scotland showcase to focus on the lives of two women intimately entwined with the i ght for freedom.
After watching a documentary about the United States’ growing prison population, Campbell became interested in the life and work of Black Panther activist Assata Shakur. ‘I went back and re-read her biography. I started noticing so many similarities between the Black Panther movement and the present day and I wanted to explore that dynamic.’ The second character, a present-day university student who also i nds herself battling systemic prejudice, allows Campbell to draw out the parallels.
‘of and The word ‘woke’ in itself conjures up a variety of an responses: dei ned systemic awareness injustices prejudices, especially related to civil and human rights’, it’s frequently used the conversations about the Black Lives Matter movement and, conversely, by their opposition on the alt-right. The play Woke is unashamedly political, while maintaining an interest in the personal consequences of standing up for positive values that challenge accepted bigotry.
‘I wanted to make a piece that transcends race and focuses on the root of the problem: the system,’ Campbell says. ‘I feel it’s important for people to see themselves in a situation and creating empathy hopefully generates change.’ The contemporary protagonist in Woke, Ambrosia, brings home the immediacy of Campbell’s subject and acts as a point of contact for the audience: ‘I wanted the audience to fall in love with the main character, so I made her as funny and likeable as possible. I’m having so much fun playing her because she looks at the world in such an innocent way. It’s refreshing.’
Importantly, as in Black is the Colour of My Voice, music is central in not just easing the audience into the action, but as a way of identifying a historical continuity. A mixture of original compositions and classic blues and gospel music locates the struggle across the past 50 years. The sense of history and arduous length of those campaigns for human rights in the US are drawn together by evocative songs that have become familiar through their association with protest against the abuses and attitudes that, sadly, refuse to disappear. Campbell is clear about her political intentions. ‘I always start with a question and then use the play to try to i nd the answers,’ she says. ‘I hope to create activists or people who want to be involved more politically.’
In particular, having been the US but now born in working in the UK, she sees theatre as a forum for exploring ideas that are not always discussed in public. ‘It was really important for me to be able to voice my reaction to the changing America. Living in the UK, I noticed that people don’t often speak about race and the quickest way to silence a room is to bring it up.’ The dynamism of her performance and the intelligence of her writing, however, presents a complex and thoughtful way into what might otherwise be ignored for reasons of social decorum. Woke marks an important contribution to theatre’s potential for examining the uncomfortable and the critical: the balance between personal experience and passionate political engagement works out how ideas can be lived and exposes their consequences. Campbell’s ambition is to create performance that changes perceptions. ‘Overall,’ she says, ‘I hope it helps the audience walk away and go home and research as much as possible and hopefully look at the world differently when it comes to political activism.’
Woke, Gilded Balloon Teviot, 5–28 Aug (not 17–19), 2pm, £10–£12 (£9–£11). Preview 4 Aug, £6.
3–10 Aug 2017 THE LIST FESTIVAL 25