Two women, 42 years apart. One lies on the floor of a prison, she hears voices saying ‘ain’t she dead yet?’ The other hears a judge issue a warrant for her arrest, for her participation in a protest after the death of Mike Brown. Woke by Apphia Campbell depicts the civil rights movement over 5 decades, focusing on two black women in very different circumstances, but fighting the same fight. One, Assata Shakur, a black panther, the other, Ambrosia, a young college student in Ferguson at the beginning of the Black Lives matter movement.
Apphia Campbell performs solo, taking on each character and era armed only with her voice, body, a chair and a stool. The two stories are told with charm and immovable strength by Campbell- the narratives cross over, overlap and twist into each other, with enchanting blues and soul numbers sung in a kind of a limbo-space, linking the two women across decades and two different sides of the country. Woke displays the political through the personal, and Campbell writes moments of unique realisation for each character, which function as succinct moments of political and emotional impact.
Assata describes her given name- Joanne – as her ‘slave name’, which she then throws off in favour of something more legendary. As Ambrosia makes her way to her court date, she makes plans for how she’s going to approach the Judge. She plans on crying in front of the judge, of articulating her case, excusing herself to attend college classes. She’s relying on her education, her middle class background, and she comes from a family with a complete trust in the police.
(I recently realised- horrendously late- that a big wallop of my white privilege throughout my teenage years were the incidences in which I chanced getting on a train with the wrong ticket, knowing I would feign ignorance or confusion, and most likely not get fined. That is privilege in a nutshell. Knowing that authority figures are on your side, and one wrong step will be quickly forgiven.)
We learn through the story that people in Ferguson are terrified of getting arrested. $150 fine for jaywalking leads to $120 fine for non-compliance plus $60 an hour court fees leads to a prison sentence if the person is unable to pay, and the whole police department is run from the profits of racial profiling. One wrong step, or one coincidence, leads to a whole chain of attacks which are impossible for Ambrosia to extract herself from.
Campbell switches from her main narrators to caricature-esque supporting side characters. She depicts two separate people, in two different decades, who say something along the lines of ‘surely it’s all fixed now?’ Surely racism doesn’t exist? Slavery is over! Jim Crow laws are over! Woke makes it clear that the first thing a racist will do is try to convince you that racism doesn’t exist. When Mike Brown was shot down in the street and his killer walked free, and when Assata is kept in jail on trumped-up accusations, it is the same prejudice resting in apathy, in every single year, state and country, over each of the forty-two years, before and beyond.
Campbell has an extraordinary voice, as a singer and a writer. This a play about broken and beaten bodies being avenged by voice, through her song, the songs of artists over the last century. I think an hour-long fringe piece of theatre is too small to contain this narrative. This might be more of a scruple with the limitations of fringe theatre than with anything the creative team has produced – but I look at a bare stage, with a solo performer giving it everything she’s got, and I think – this story deserves more. From the form, from the industry, from the audience. It deserves 700 page novels and 4 hour song cycles.
Woke is on at Battersea Arts Centre till 22nd June. More info here.