Apphia Campbell — 'I wanted to make a piece that transcends race and focuses on the root of the problem: the system'

This article is from 2017

Apphia Campbell — 'I wanted to make a piece that transcends race and focuses on the root of the problem: the system'

credit: Robin Mitchell

Returning to the Fringe with Woke, a show about the Black Panthers and prejudice that she hopes will change perceptions

In 2014, Apphia Campbell's Black is the Colour of My Voice introduced an exciting performer and writer who is capable of connecting the struggle for human rights with its contemporary and historical context: with Woke, Campbell returns to the Fringe as part of the Made in Scotland selections to focus on the lives of two women intimately entwined with the fight for freedom.

After watching a documentary about the USA's 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 movement and I wanted to explore that dynamic.' The second character, a present-day university student who also finds herself battling systemic prejudice, allows Campbell to draw out the parallels.

The word 'woke' in itself conjures up a variety of responses: defined as an awareness 'of systemic injustices and prejudices, especially related to civil and human rights', it is frequently used in the conversations about the Black Lives Matter movement and, conversely, by their opposition on the alt-right. And 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 — which is the system,' Campbell says. 'I feel it's important for people to see themselves in a situation; creating empathy hopefully generates change.'

The contemporary protagonist, 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 the 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 the arduous length of the campaigns for human rights in the USA 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 I use the play to try to find the answers,' she says. 'I hope to create activists or people who want to be involved more politically.' In particular, having been born in the USA but now 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,' she continues. '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 to examine 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, 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.'

Gilded Balloon Teviot, 5-28 Aug (not 17-19), 2pm, £10-£12 (£9-£11). Preview 4 Aug, £6.


  • 4 stars

New story about the 20th-century African-American experience from Apphia Campbell.