Reviews Leeds Published 22 September 2017

Review: Woke at the West Yorkshire Playhouse

20 - 22 September 2017

‘We have to stumble along the way and admit to our mistakes’: Catherine Love reviews Testament’s show about feminism and becoming a father.

Catherine Love
Woke at the West Yorkshire Playhouse.

Woke at the West Yorkshire Playhouse.

Some days, it feels as though half of Twitter is just men telling women about feminism. Men explaining why we need it. Men explaining why we don’t need it. Men praising their curvy wives, as though finding your wife attractive even though she’s not the size of an undernourished catwalk model is the height of gender enlightenment.

So why watch a one-man show about feminism? Testament appreciates the irony. He wants to listen to the experiences of women, to confront and rehabilitate his own unconscious sexism, yet here he is holding the mic for an hour. He might be changing the conversation, but he’s still dominant within it.

This problem never quite goes away. Neither does the uncomfortable fact – equally owned up to and critiqued by the writer and performer – that Testament only decided to talk about gender equality after having a daughter. There’s an insidious rhetoric that asks men to think “what if this happened to your daughter, or your sister, or your mother?” Why not think of women as fucking human beings, rather than as appendages to men?

Testament is aware of that rhetoric, just as he’s painfully aware of his own failings. At times, his show almost threatens to crumple under its own guilt and self-awareness. But, while it’s not without problems, Woke is an important confrontation of the ways in which, while fighting for equality on one front, we can be deeply implicated in the mechanisms of inequality on another. Testament is a self-labelled “conscious MC”; he uses his hip-hop to address issues of social and racial discrimination. Yet only now is he turning his attention to the patriarchy.

The resulting show is a tangle of awakening, education and complicity, as Testament re-enacts the process of owning up to and dealing with his role in structural gender inequality. He switches rapidly between registers, chatting amiably to the audience, then beat-boxing and rapping, then having an imagined conversation with his young daughter. At times, the different strands are only loosely knit, threatening to pull apart. But it’s just about held together by its charismatic performer, who’s likeable even when exposing his own sexism (as men – and here’s one of the problems Testament’s identifying – so often are).

The highlights are the virtuosic verbal performances, in which Testament loops beat-boxing, hip-hop rhythms and swift, witty lyrics. In one of these sequences, he entertainingly dissects the ways in which the media inculcates gender stereotypes, flitting between snippets of television shows and ads with pinpoint accuracy. In another, he breaks down the hip-hop party banger into its formulaically misogynistic parts, with a catchy chorus of “objectify the women”.

Less successful is the pause in the show in which Testament opens his platform to the women in the audience. It’s an admirable gesture, but it fits all too neatly into the structure of the show’s closing minutes, without acknowledging the imbalance of time and status between the performer and those whose contributions he invites. Women are only heard when he chooses. Discomfort and failure, though, are crucial parts of the process Testament is putting on stage. To work towards being truly woke, we have to stumble along the way and admit to our mistakes.

While Woke is about the specific experience of facing up to sexism as a man of colour, it also speaks to the broader need for intersectional politics. What’s brilliant about the show is that it denies anyone the comfort of sitting back and thinking “this doesn’t apply to me”. My own position is essentially the inverse of Testament’s: as a white woman, I need to acknowledge and address my racial privilege and the ways in which white feminism has been exclusionary and violent towards women of colour. And as Testament recognises, becoming woke is a process. It’s something we all have to work at.

Woke is on at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 22 September 2017 as part of Furnace Festival. Click here for more details. 

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Catherine Love

Catherine is a freelance arts journalist and theatre critic. She writes regularly for titles including The Guardian, The Stage and WhatsOnStage. She is also currently an AHRC funded PhD candidate at Royal Holloway, University of London, pursuing research into the relationship between text and performance in 21st century British theatre.

Review: Woke at the West Yorkshire Playhouse Show Info


Written by Testament

Cast includes Testament

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