We caught up with Apphia Campbell, ahead of her performance of her award-winning show Woke at Hull Jazz Festival. We chatted about the inspiration behind the show, the role that music plays in defining the show’s characters and how it feels to be performing in front of live audiences again.
Hull Jazz Festival (HJF): What’s the show about?
Apphia: It’s about two women, 42 year’s apart, who get involved in the civil rights movement. One, Assata Shakur, is a real life character. She was a Black Panther and was falsely convicted of killing a police officer in the 1970s. The other, Ambrosia, is a student, starting her time at university as the Ferguson riots begin in 2014. The show moves between the past and the present, asking ‘how far have we really come?’
HJF: Who is this play for?
Apphia: It’s for people who love theatre and it’s for people who want to find out more about the Black Lives Matter movement and its roots.
When I first started creating Woke in 2014 I was living overseas, in Shanghai. So I was abroad, watching what was happening in Ferguson, with tanks and riot police on the streets, and wondering what was going on. Why was it happening and what was Black Lives Matter? I felt it was really important to create something that helped people understand that there was a story behind all of the unrest.
As part of my research I watched the documentary 13th [about the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which abolished slavery and ended involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for a criminal conviction]. It opened my eyes to the roots of the anger behind Black Lives Matter and made me realise how certain ideas had become rooted in my way of thinking. I realised how various political campaigns over the years had worked their way into my psyche and that it’s important to find out the stories behind what you see and hear in the media.
HJF: Judging by the response on social media, audiences have a really emotional response to the show. What can people expect to feel?
Apphia: Audiences are really moved by Ambrosia’s journey – she starts off quite naïve, not really understanding about civil rights and wondering what all the fuss is about. Then this carefree college student ends up getting caught in the system, and something seemingly innocuous turns out to have something more sinister behind it.
I know that people who’ve seen the show feel educated and they feel surprised at what they’ve learnt. They feel inspired to seek out ways to understand and help people who’ve had a different journey to them.
HJF: Music’s interwoven throughout the performance. How did you go about selecting the songs that feature? And what impact does the soundtrack have on the performance?
Apphia: I always look for songs and music that move me and enhance the emotion of the moment. When I was writing the show, I listened to a lot of music. I started off with old blues music, the sound of the old West – I had it playing in the background while I was writing.
It was really important to me to find a way to delineate between the two different characters and their stories. The music helps the audience understand where we are and which character we’re hearing from. Assata’s soundtrack is more spiritual, it has an older sound. For Ambrosia, her inspiration starts off with Bessie Smith then she starts singing her own music as she becomes more aware and finds her voice.
HJF: What’s your favourite song from the show, and why?
Apphia: My favourite piece of music in the show is Oh Freedom. It’s an old spiritual, sung by a choir, and it has real emotional resonance. It comes at a key point in Assata’s journey and really underscores the emotions she’s feeling.
I also love singing some of my own songs in the show. When I was writing Woke I went back through some of my old recordings and rediscovered songs that matched key points in the story. I love singing ‘I Want to be Free’, where Ambrosia talks about how she’s feeling about her journey so far.
HJF: It feels like a very long time since our theatres and arts venues first had to close their doors last March. How does it feel to be performing in front of live audiences again?
Apphia: I love it! I really missed the spiritual connection with the audience and seeing people really connect with the piece. It’s been great realising that I can still do that!
People have been really appreciative – they’ve missed the live experience too and it’s been so lovely seeing their response to the show. I’m so appreciative that people are supporting theatre and getting back out to see live performance again.
HJF: Finally, if you could sum up this show in three words, what would they be?
Apphia: Emotional, insightful and uplifting.
Apphia Campbell performs Woke at Hull Truck Theatre at 3pm on Saturday 24th July. Find out more and book tickets here.