Edinburgh Fringe 2018
This is the return of a Fringe First Award-winning show that traces the struggle for American civil rights.
Woke is the story of the struggle for civil rights in Black America over many decades. It is told by two characters: notorious Black Panther Assata Shakur and a present-day student at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri during the riots and protests in Ferguson, Missouri. The story highlights the contradictions and injustices in the American law-enforcement and judicial systems. Both characters face the dilemma of staying to fight for the rights of their community or self-preservation by fleeing.
The Black Panther Party was founded in 1966 by two college students in California Their platform addressed pressing issues in the Black community. Their stated goals were: “We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice, and peace” , along with employment opportunities. They organized street patrols in their neighbourhoods and did community service work. By 1970, there were 30 chapters in major cities across the US. It was an ignition point for protests, often violent and sometimes armed confrontations, which put in it in the cross-hairs of the FBI.
Fast forward to August, 2014, Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb of the metropolitan city of St. Louis. In a town that was 67 percent African-American, there were reportedly three Black officers and 50 white officers . An unarmed Black teenager, Michael Brown, is gunned down by a white police officer after leaving a store, suspected but never proven to be a petty thief. His body is left in the street for four hours and crowd begin to gather – and gather – and grow. The community, which has endured an inordinate number of arrests of Black residents by a primarily white police force, is enraged. For more than a week, stores and cars are burned, and the National Guard is summoned to control the violence. Damage is in the millions. The police officer is ultimately charged in the shooting, but a grand jury declined to indict.
Actress Apphia Campbell brilliantly intertwines these events to show the similarity and continued systemic racism in the U.S. With a sparse set consisting of a small tables and boxes, she becomes the characters in the story, handily switching between the multiple players. She fully paints a picture of each of the players in the story so that we get to know them and their internal struggles. She makes us question their decisions – which way would we go if we were in their situation? She sways and stomps and leaps onto props, always pushing the story forward. Her soulful singing tears at our heart-strings. She evokes sympathy throughout for her characters. She is absolutely riveting. Her story delivers a blow to our insides. We have to ask ourselves why and how this injustice was and is allowed in what is purported to be a democracy. Why do these characters have to make life-changing decisions that could mean huge sacrifices of what they have worked to achieve?
We leave the theatre with more questions than answers. It is a brilliantly written piece of work that should leave audiences shaken to their core and thinking deeply about the situations portrayed.
This is the most important original drama that I have seen in many years. It should be performed in every school in America to give this generation perspective and an understanding of history.
Full disclosure – I grew up in St. Louis, and saw some of the racism portrayed in the piece. However, I had moved away decades before the shooting in Ferguson, although I followed the news closely. I bought a ticket for this show because it sold out in a previous year and I wanted to see the story.