Gate Theatre Spring 2017
Written in anger to express a people's anger, Kalungi Ssebandeke's play has all the inescapable flaws of a polemic. But its passion and power carry the evening.
Assata Shakur is an actual African-American woman. A member of the militant Black Panther Party in her youth, she was convicted of the murder of a policeman in 1977, but escaped to Cuba, where she lives today.
Kalungi Ssebandeke imagines Assata holed up behind triple-locked doors with a gun handy, expecting Cuban or American police at any time. What she gets instead is a black Cuban student, asking her to help improve his English so he can escape to the golden land of America.
Convinced that his innocence would only make him prey to endemic American racism, she determines to teach him black pride and black anger instead, lecturing him about African roots and American lynchings. Eventually he will have to choose between her teachings and his ambitions.
Even from that outline you can see that the play exists to allow for Assata's lectures and screeds against America, with the boy just a feed and an excuse.
That doesn't ruin the play – Look Back In Anger is just a platform for Jimmy Porter's tirades – but in this case it does mean that other aspects of basic play-writing are weak.
To serve the play by setting Assata up for her next lesson, the boy is alternately barely able to express himself or eloquent, naive or sophisticated, subservient or aggressive, comical or serious.
To allow her to say things he can't set up, the playwright resorts to the device of having Assata, when alone, talk to a photograph of her grandmother. When the play belatedly develops a plot and a danger of violence in the final moments, it feels arbitrarily imposed just to create an ending.
Director Lynette Linton rightly senses that the play's centre is in Assata's anger and keeps the focus there, but can't help her actors over the cracks in the play's dramaturgy.
Kenneth Omole is unable to make the contrasts and contradictions I listed earlier add up to a coherent character, and must settle for playing each of the boy's faces in turn.
Adjoa Andoh's Assata is more of a piece because she is defined entirely by her anger. But Andoh's intensely realised portrayal of the one overriding passion leaves little room for the play's hints at other, softer sides to the woman.
Whether or not you agree with Assata's conviction that America is incurably racist, the play convincingly demonstrates the depth and reality of her passion, and forces the realisation that there are many people, not all of colour, who share that conviction for what are to them good reasons.
Assata Taught Me is a warning against complacency – the existence of a black American President is specifically dismissed as irrelevant – and therefore as discomfiting to white audiences as to black.
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Review - Assata Taught Me - Gate Theatre 2017