An Interview with Actor, Apphia Campbell


Apphia Campbell is the creator of the hit show Black Is The Color Of My Voice. And on 24th July at Hull Truck Theatre she performs in Woke, a new story about the 20th Century African American experience. As part of the Hull Jazz Festival, Woke brings with it a powerful soundtrack of original music and traditional gospel and blues.

What’s the show about?
It’s about two women, 42 years 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?’

Who is this play for?
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. 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.

Apphia Campbell Woke

What can people expect to feel?
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 have seen the show feel educated and they feel surprised at what they have learnt. They feel inspired to seek out ways to understand and help people who have had a different journey to them.

“It has a real emotional resonance”

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?
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.

What’s your favourite song from the show, and why?
My favourite piece of music in the show is ‘Oh Freedom’. It’s an old spiritual song, sung by a choir, and it has real emotional resonance. It comes at a key point in Assata’s journey and really underscores the pain 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.

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?
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 really 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.

Finally, if you could sum up this show in three words, what would they be?
Emotional, insightful, and uplifting.

Woke was written by Apphia Campbell alongside Meredith Yarborough


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