After a superb sold-out run in 2017, Apphia Campbell returned to this year's Edinburgh Fringe for one week only. Woke is her powerful show portraying parallel narratives of two womens' civil rights awakenings. It is great and important theatre that addresses systemic racism in the United States, and it feels especially important in a place as overwhelmingly white as the Edinburgh Fringe.
Woke is great theatre
Campbell plays two women, separated by 40 years of American history. Ambrosia is a young student, starting university in St. Louis, Missouri in the wake of the death of Michael Brown – an 18-year-old African-American man who was shot by white police officer, Darren Wilson. She gradually becomes more and more politicised as she meets fellow students and attends Black Lives Matter rallies and protests, demanding justice for Michael Brown. Her tale is told alongside that of Assata Shakur, a member of the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army in the 1970s. We follow Shakur's journey from radicalisation to eventual incarceration following a shootout in New Jersey.
The staging is smart and simple, putting Campbell's excellent performance to the fore, with lighting changes and simple physical affectations supporting the character shifts from Ambrosia to Shakur. Sound is used effectively too, bringing the blues songs to life, complementing the spoken word elements and building crowd scenes out of nowhere.
As Ambrosia's story reaches its climax and she becomes ever more embroiled in the systemically racist practices of St. Louis' police and justice departments, so too does the energy of the play. Campbell has slowly taken us up to this point, building layers of meaning that span space and time and showing different facets of the central issues: "it's a dangerous blindness when you can't see another person is human," she says. "We are the victims not the criminals."
Woke is great theatre, and the audience clearly agreed, demonstrating their approval with a standing ovation. I hope pieces like this pave the way for more diverse voices at festivals like the Fringe, because at the moment there is very little challenging the dominance of space and airtime by so many white male stand-up comedians.