Through The Mud

Nov 4 2023 | By More

★★★★☆     Powerful

Royal Lyceum Theatre: Thurs 2 – Sat 4 Nov 2023
Review by Hugh Simpson

Through The Mud by Apphia Campbell at the Lyceum is a story of the struggle for civil rights in the USA in the face of racism. Its portrayal of the African American experience across the generations is both depressing and inspiring, told with craft and tunefulness.

A co-production from Stellar Quines and the Lyceum, this is a ‘re-conceived’ version of Campbell’s one-person show WOKE – written by Campbell and Meredith Yarbrough and winner of a Fringe First. It has become a two-hander telling of the struggles of two women against the American justice system four decades apart.

Apphia Campbell and Tinashe Warikandwa. Pic Stuart Armitt

Campbell plays Assata Shakur, a one-time Black Panther and member of the Black liberation Army who was convicted of the murder of a New Jersey State Trooper – after being brutalised in custody, and undergoing a trial that could in no way be described as fair.

The play’s other strand concerns Ambrosia (Tinashe Warikandwa), a naive and sheltered student who starts college in Missouri in 2014. This coincides with the protests in Ferguson after the killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown by a police officer – protests which saw the Black Lives Matter movement come to public attention, amidst growing concern over for-profit policing and the increasing militarisation of law enforcement.

political awakening

The two stories are told in parallel, with Ambrosia’s political awakening being related chronologically and Assata Shakur’s a more fractured time scheme.

Apphia Campbell and Tinashe Warikandwa. Pic Stuart Armitt

The interweaving of the narratives is skilfully done, with the inescapable inference being that very little has changed over the last half-century. Furthermore, the struggles of previous years tend to be airbrushed from the official record, leaving the next generation to start from scratch.

This unfortunate conclusion is ameliorated a little by the element of the production that is a good old-fashioned excursion into the grand tradition of politically informed theatre, with an explicit call to action.

If this all sounds overly dry and worthy, rest assured it is nothing of the sort. The stories are told with care and compassion, acted with fire and control, and accompanied by judicious use of music – Bessie Smith, protest song, even an ironic rendition of America The Beautiful – sung wonderfully by the performers. Campbell also provides original music, and the musical direction of Marie-Gabrielle Koumenda is an integral part of the show’s impact.

anger and intelligence

Campbell’s portrayal of a woman whose anger and intelligence is only partly dimmed by her treatment provides a clever counterpart to the initial naivete of Warikandwa, whose character’s growing awareness is shown with subtlety.

Apphia Campbell and Tinashe Warikandwa. Pic Stuart Armitt

The two performers also play the other necessary characters with clarity and a welcoming leavening of humour. Caitlin Skinner’s direction is sensitive and makes excellent use of the almost bare acting space. Ellie Thompson’s video design is an object lesson in how to use the form to enhance the narrative without overpowering it.

beautiful, angry and challenging

The structure, while impressive, does have some defects; the plaiting of the two narratives, while done with skill, does threaten to become too predictable. This is not helped by some moments (perhaps reminders of its origin as a one-hander) when the story is told through straightforward bald exposition rather than the interplay of characters.

This occurs rarely, however, in a script that makes tremendous use of its two performers. The result is beautiful, angry and challenging for its audience – so many of the things great theatre should be.

Running time: one hour and 15 minutes (no interval).
Royal Lyceum Theatre, Grindlay St, EH9 3AX
Thursday 2 – Saturday 4 November 2023
Daily at 7.30 pm; Matinee Sat at 2.30 pm.
Details and tickets: Book here.

Tinashe Warikandwa and Apphia Campbell. Pic: Stuart Armitt


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