Assata Shakur, living in exile in Cuba since the 70s and the only woman on the FBI’s Most Wanted list, is a character ripe for theatrical intervention – especially in the age of Black Lives Matter, when “Assata Taught Me” is found emblazoned on the chests of protestors across the US. Kalungi Ssebandeke’s Assata Taught Me takes Assata’s exile, as well as the recent death of Afeni Shakur (Tupac’s mother and Assata’s best friend), as its premise and runs with it. The play is a solid piece of theatre – often funny, often sad – that nevertheless sometimes falters under the weight of the politics it attempts to hash out in little more than an hour’s running time.
Assata is an American woman in Havana who rescues 21-year-old black Cuban Fanuco from a beating. He is a law student, in love with the United States and the promise of moving to Miami to work with his uncle, and decides to badger Assata into helping him improve his English. She says yes, they agree to meet once a week, and so begins the events that keeps the play moving forward.
From Martin Luther King Jr. to a young Muhammad Ali, over the past year fictional depictions of time spent with African-American political figures is something the London stage has become more familiar with. These plays have provided a chance for Black British actors to shine: Kemp Powers’ excellent One Night In Miami at the Donmar had a wealth of great performances, while Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop received rave reviews for Gbolahan Obisesan and Ronke Adékoluejo. Now, I hope the same happens for Adjoa Andoh and Kenneth Omole, whose performances are easily the highlights of this play.
Andoh’s Assata has a fire inside her, all long strides, a straight back and the harsh voice of someone with a painful revolutionary past. She constantly emphasises the power of the African people and the love Cuba has for its population, and when she demands her young student dances with her or calls himself an African, it’s clear why he eventually acquiesces to her commands. Fanuco meanwhile is playful and idealistic, although his naïveté jars at times. I struggled to understand why he had to be 21 – why not a few years younger? Being a teenager would better explain his ignorance, and his refusal to see any flaws in the US (despite literally being lectured weekly by a former Black Panther). However his character truly shines at the climax of the play, a tense confrontation between the woman and young man as the sound of rain beats down around the audience. Grief-striken and vulnerable, but more grown-up than we’ve seen him before, Fanuco’s offer to do ‘whatever he needs to’ in order to raise the money he needs to fly to Miami is an incredible piece of theatre. Without giving away too much, the way the scene cashes in on the sexual dynamic (or, the previous lack of sexual tension) between the two characters is pretty masterful, and I only acknowledged the breath I was holding in when it was all over.
It’s a shame that the scene is so good it also serves to highlight the unsatisfactory nature of the ending. The scene that follows has its own dramatic moment but I couldn’t find it in myself to feel too strongly about it – no small feat considering it revolves around a lynching – and the closing moments were far too rushed, as well as deeply unbelievable. Both Assata and Fanuco seem out of character, and the play ends so abruptly I wasn’t sure what to do with myself.
Saying all that, the production’s constant attention to detail left an impression: Fanuco’s music blaring from his mobile phone like so many other young men across the globe; Roberta Flack (who else?) appearing on pressed vinyl; the way Assata continually draws her gun whenever there’s a knock on the door. With its cracked tiles and faux-sunlight, the set is beautiful and as the doors were unlocked at the end, I acknowledged that this small piece of revolutionary Havana with Assata Shakur is likely to stay with me for a while to come.
Asset Taught Me is on at the Gate Theatre until 27th May 2017. Click here for more details.