Assata Taught Me
Time Out says
This new play imagines the current life of Black Panther Assata Shakur, living in Cuba to evade the FBI's terrorism charges
Assata Shakur is an unlikely holder of the fearsome title of the first woman to make the FBI’s most wanted terrorist list. Kalungi Ssebandeke’s debut play imagines her as she is now, an exile adrift in modern day Cuba, still protesting her innocence and haunted by her past battles as a Black Panther. Through a series of nail-biting English lessons delivered to a peppy young law student, the impact of her decades of activism and struggle become painfully visible.
Adjoa Andoh’s performance as Assata is at the heart of the play’s success, switching deftly from shuffling loneliness to furious power. She’s half stuck in the past, revealing enticing fragments of her former self in the records she plays, or the names of her fallen comrades, recited like an incantation. But she’s full of faith in modern-day Cuba, too, and itching to join the fight at Ferguson. Her politics are diametrically opposed to those of her America-obsessed student Fanuco (a wide-eyed Kenneth Omole), who struggles to claim his African heritage. Their heated discussions set up endless oppositions: Cuba versus America, experience versus innocence, spiritual nourishment versus a Big Mac and fries.
These are all chewy, crunchy issues. But the contrived set-up of lesson after lesson limits the play, especially as Fanuco’s character doesn’t seem to meaningfully develop. Even for a 21-year-old, he’s insanely naive: could you really spend weeks hearing stories of lynchings and oppression from a Black Panther activist and still come away shouting that America’s the land of the free?
Combined with an ending that artificially winches up the tension to implausible levels, ‘Assata Taught Me’ feels more like an enigmatic fragment than a fully formed play. But Lynette Linton’s sharp production finds all its power, crafting an affecting insight into Assata’s struggle to keep going when her fight’s all but over.