“That boy is a revolutionary, he just doesn’t know it”
Frankie Bradshaw’s design for Assata Taught Me at the Gate Theatre is nothing short of wondrous, with its turquoise walls patched with corrugated iron, faded tiles on the floor. Along with Jack Weir’s lighting, all the colourful character of old Havana is evoked, along with the complex history right up to its contemporary situation. And it is in the modern day there that we find Assata Shakur, a woman who has the infamy of being the first woman to make the FBI’s Most Wanted list.
Shakur (mother of Tupac FYI) really does live in political exile in Cuba but Kalungi Ssebandeke’s play is a work of fiction, imagining the relationship that develops between her and a young law student to whom she starts to teach English. Kenneth Omole’s Fanuco isn’t aware of who his teacher is, the backstory with which we’re briefly acquainted as the show opens but as their lessons progress, it is increasingly clear how diametrically opposed the pair are.
Their battles cover a wide range of issues – their divergent positions within the spectrum of black struggle, Cuban realities versus American Dreams, the importance of history against the aspirations of the future. And if Ssebandeke’s format is a little schematic as it uses the weekly lessons to develop the pair and then makes Assatu use her grandmother’s photo as a conversational aid inbetween, Adjoa Andoh is never less than scintillating.
Lynette Linton’s production can’t quite paper over the cracks for Fanuco’s character, no matter Omole’s impressive work in his debut performance, there’s no discernible development in someone learning about the considerable trials of US black history for the first time without having that affect his burning desire to go there. That said, it’s still an admirably intense little drama.