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Theatremaker Apphia Campbell: ‘I didn’t anticipate Black Is the Color of My Voice being so successful’

Writer and performer Apphia Campbell. Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic

Her solo piece Woke follows two women’s experiences of the US justice system amid the ongoing struggle for civil rights. Apphia Campbell tells Giverny Masso why she felt compelled to make the show…

Tell me about Woke.
It’s about two women, 42 years apart, who get involved in the civil rights movement. One is Assata Shakur, who was involved with the Black Panther Party back in the 1960s. She was convicted of killing a New Jersey police officer and sentenced to life in prison. She escaped and lives in Cuba in exile. And the modern-day story follows a student named Ambrosia, who moves to St Louis at the beginning of the Ferguson riots and through political activism, or accidental activism, finds herself criminalised. It goes back and forth between the two stories, showing the similarities and comparing how far we’ve come or how much more we have to do.

Why did you feel this was an important show to make?
I was really inspired by Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th, in which she talks about the 13th amendment and how that affected the prison surge in America. I was thinking about that and the Black Lives Matter movement and I really wanted to tell the story. Also, I feel that the media are trying to make Black Lives Matter into a negative movement, when it’s just people asking not to be shot and to have the same rights as anyone else.

Woke review at Gilded Balloon, Edinburgh – ‘powerful monologue’

When did you start making your own work?
I started seriously to sit down to write and create my own work when I was living in Shanghai in 2013, which was when I wrote Black Is the Color of My Voice. I guess I didn’t really anticipate it being as successful as it has been. I was really passionate about Nina Simone’s music and her story, and I wrote the piece hoping that 20 people would show up – it ended up selling out. As a result of that, I was able to bring it over to the Edinburgh Fringe, which introduced me to the different producers in the UK, so I was able to tour it here.

What other productions have you worked on recently?
I was a founding member of the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe in Florida, and about two years ago I worked with the company on The Color Purple, in which I was cast as the lead. It was one of the roles I’d always wanted to play, I just felt vocally I was always scared of it.

What is your advice to emerging theatremakers?
I would say find a story that you’re passionate about and find a way to tell it. Don’t wait for people to give you opportunities. It’s a different world in this industry now, it’s not about going to auditions. If you don’t think you’re a good writer, dancer or whatever, just find a good team around you. The biggest thing I learned was that you’re not good at everything, so find people who are good at something and figure out a way to work together, because you all help each other and build each other up.

CV Apphia Campbell

Training: BA in Theatre Performance at Florida International University (2003-06)
First professional role: Narrator in Beehive at the Temple Theatre in North Carolina (2006)
Agent: Dolina Logan at Lovett Logan

Woke runs at Battersea Arts Centre from June 10 to 22, more information is at bac.org.uk. Woke and Black Is the Color of my Voice will also run at the Edinburgh Fringe and are touring the UK. See apphiacampbell.com

Black Is the Colour of My Voice review at Brasserie Zedel, London – ‘stunning vocals’

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