The award-winning playwright, actress and singer, Apphia Campbell, sits down with Uma Nada-Rajah to discuss living in China, the Black Lives Matter movement and the stories behind her two acclaimed sell-out shows, Black is the Colour of My Voice and Woke.
I meet Apphia Campbell in Edinburgh on a crisp, autumnal afternoon in early September.
I’m scribbling in my notebook when I’m suddenly greeted by a warm ‘hello’ followed by a deep, sexy, airy and melodic laugh. She wears a black felt fedora, chunky yellow-gold earrings and a thick, dark cable knit jumper. I’m wearing a crisp, navy linen dress, and in the wood-panelled 17th century upstairs bistro of the Doric, we are the very picture of reverse colonialism.
Hailing originally from Sarasota, Florida, Campbell is a theatre-maker who has taken the Fringe by storm. She is the creator of two highly-acclaimed, award-winning sell-out shows: Black is the Colour of My Voice (2013) and Woke (2017).
Campbell is a powerful performer with a strong stature and a killer voice. Her work thus far has interlaced song and text, performed solo by Apphia herself. Black is the Colour of My Voice is a soulful exploration of the personal and political heartbreaks of Nina Simone, while Woke, written after the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown (black & unarmed) in Ferguson, Missouri, explores the suppression of political voice by law enforcement. Woke interweaves the stories of two black women: one real, one fictional; Black Panther Assata Shakur and the fictional Ambrosia.
I saw both pieces back-to-back this year and was struck by how vividly Campbell captures a moment of political awakening for each of her characters. “I don’t consider myself to be political. With Nina Simone, it wasn’t really being interested in her political side as much as being interested in her as a woman and her music. I was really intrigued by her voice and the pain I heard in her voice and wondered where that came from. Obviously, the political side had a major effect on her and her music and how she interpreted her music”.
“With Woke, I was in China still when the whole Black Lives Matter movement was starting up, and after Ferguson. I was watching it all from afar. At that point I had been out of America for four years and I didn’t visit that often as well; for me it was watching America change through the media.”
“I was shocked when I watched the news – people were trying to demonise the Black Lives Matter movement. From a distance you only see one side. When you’re not on the ground, you have no idea what’s happening. When I went back to America, a friend said to me: ‘Apphia, we are dying out here in the streets’. I remember thinking: ‘Wow. People really feel like this’. It was one of those moments.”
“I was listening to DeRay speak [Mckesson, one of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) leaders]. He was a teacher. With everything happening, he just walked away from his job, student loan, credit card bills and just went to Ferguson, sat on the floor of the police station and had people spitting in his face. I didn’t know if I could just walk away from my life like that. But I started thinking about what I could do to contribute to the political fight.”
Woke contains a scathing critique of the American justice system and the means in which it is instrumentalised to supress grassroots organising. In a storyline I felt was particularly poignant, fresh-faced Ambrosia gets stuck in to the Ferguson BLM protests, only to get fined for ‘loitering’, one nonsensical fine leads to another, until the young activist is in over her head in debt. “The system is not there to protect you, it is there to protect people with money,” Campbell concludes.
So what was she up to in China?
“I moved to China 2009, I got a job teaching drama at an arts school. After one year on the job, the company went out of business. I was on holiday in Thailand, and a friend called and said: “Apphia, the jig is up”. Just two days later, a musician I had randomly ended up jamming with at a party called and told me there was a bar that was looking for a singer to sing full-time, 6 nights a week, paying twice what I was making as a teacher.”
“So that was the beginning of my singing career. It was hardcore vocal training. I learned how to sing songs the way they were written and to interpret songs, and to feel the freedom to do that.”
“I ended up staying in China for six years. It was a different time than it is now. It was before Xi Jinping came in and became ‘president for life’. At the time, the World Expo was there – China felt vibrant. Especially in 2009, when the rest of the world was steeped in the financial crisis. There was also something about the anonymity of being in China. It’s so far away from home and so foreign from everything you know. Even if you do something really shitty and they write about it in the China Times, who’s gonna find it? I wrote Black in Shanghai and produced it there first.”
So what’s next for Campbell? She’s coy about it when I ask, but I can tell she’s got something up her sleeve. All I manage to squeeze out of her is that it’s personal, and full-length.
And if she won the lottery tomorrow what would she do? “I probably wouldn’t tour as much. But I would still be writing, working with people, collaborating. Yeah, I think I would be doing pretty much the same.”
Culture à la Apphia Campbell
BOOKS: Toni Morrison and more Toni Morrison. “She is an astute observer of human behaviour; a master of the imagery of violence which penetrates the soul”. Also Coleson Whitehead and Alice Walker.
FRINGE PICK OF THE YEAR: Bryony Kimmings’ I’m a Phoenix, Bitch. “I was floored by her honesty…. being able to be that vulnerable.” Campbell is also a fan of the American playwright/ performer Aleshea Harris.
FILMS: The Colour Purple, Lady Sings the Blues, What’s Love Got to Do with It and 13th.
SASSY BLING: Campbell is a big fan of the independent jewellery maker Wolf & Moon.
MUSIC: Currently on rotation is Michael Kiwanuka and H.E.R.
T.V. & BOXSETS: The Handmaid’s Tale “Season one was great because it was fairly accurate to the book. I enjoyed season two because it was about motherhood. In season three they lost the plot. Let’s see what happens in season four.”
Apphia Campbell’s Black is the Colour of My Voice is on tour around the UK and the Netherlands until the 24th November. Click the links to book tickets: Watermans Theatre, London (8th Nov, 7.30pm), Anvil Arts Centre, Basingstoke (9th November), Hull Truck Theatre, Hull (16th Nov, 3 – 4.15pm), STET The English Theatre, Netherlands (22nd to 24th Nov, different times).
Lucy Writers would like to thank Apphia Campbell and Uma Nada-Rajah for allowing us to publish this interview.