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Review: Woke at Liverpool Playhouse ****

It’s become a label delivered with often derisive dismissal.

But here, Apphia Campbell reclaims the word ‘woke’ and revisits its original meaning as an awareness of social and racial justice.

The one-woman play expertly winds together two seemingly separate stories of African American women and their experiences four decades apart to create one single potent testimony.

In 2014 we meet Ambrosia, a middle-class, law abiding innocent abroad who is introduced to activism the hard way when she becomes embroiled in the protests surrounding the killing of Black teenager Michael Brown by a white officer in Ferguson, Missouri, and for the first time discovers a system stacked against her.

The narrative switches backwards and forwards between the almost-now and the ‘then’ of the 1970s to juxtapose Ambrosia’s story with that of Assata Shakur, sometime Black Panther and member of the Black Liberation Army who was convicted of killing a white police officer and later escaped prison, fleeing to Cuba where she remains to this day, a fugitive on the FBI’s ‘most wanted’ list.

Her two protagonists start off physically far apart – the naïve young student’s open, expansive gestures and bright demeanour a sharp contrast to Shakur’s tense stillness and taut tones.

But over the course of 75 minutes Campbell stealthily smudges the lines until we can’t be entirely sure who is going to speak next.

Apphia Campbell in Woke

Campbell, who co-wrote Woke with Meredith Yarbrough, proves a compelling storyteller – and singer, delivering a live soundtrack of evocative blues numbers with a mixture of languorous richness and fierce energy.

A lot has happened since the events in Ferguson, and indeed since 2017 when Woke was first performed, not l it itast with the global reaction to the death of George Floyd and the accompanying move into mainstreaim consciousness by the Black Lives Matter movement.

The recent release of Oscar-winning Judas and the Black Messiah has also brought the story of the Black Panthers to the fore again and introduced it to a new generation.

This new tour of Woke feels then like a timely and powerful addition to that landscape – and one which stays with you when you leave the theatre.

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