Dusty turquoise corrugated iron lines the walls, cracked orange patterned tiles lie underfoot, a bottle of rum is poised ominously on the side; the setting of Assata Taught Me is unmistakably, and wonderfully, Cuban.
As the audience trickles in to the soundtrack of Havana, the all-encompassing set, with the tiles even snaking up the tiered seating, transports them out of Notting Hill and into the colourful hideout of wanted criminal Assata Shakur.
The world premiere of Kalungi Ssebandeke’s first full-length play explores an imagined friendship between convicted felon and former Black Panther Assata, and the Cuban teenager Fanuco who sees her as his passport to the American dream, firstly as his teacher, but later as his bounty.
The opening is punchy, alternating between music and silent darkness. In the role of Assata, Adjoa Andoh struts confidently in time across the room, and executes picture-perfect poses as she locks and unlocks the door of her self-built prison. Reminiscent of a well-choreographed music video, you almost expect her to burst into song à la Madonna’s ‘Vogue’. It sets a strangely sensual, visceral tone, which is fitting for the violent explosion of friendship that is to follow.
The audience is plunged into pitch black to obscure a wounded Fanuco’s first appearance. Fanuco, played by newcomer Kenneth Omole, enters Assata’s, and the audience’s, world from nowhere, and his mysterious ability to get past her firmly locked front door is symbolic of the way he continues to break down her barriers.
Andoh’s reluctant teacher is subtle, yet believable, as she struggles to resist the boyish enthusiasm of Fanuco. Yet their friendship breaks down almost as quickly as it is built, as the discrimination which unites them tears them apart. From her heavy, wide-legged gait, to her manly, splayed legs as she sits waiting for her self-appointed pupil to arrive, Andoh is exemplary in the role of the strong, yet restrained revolutionary. In every movement and glance, Andoh subtly betrays Assata’s under the surface pain. Remarkably, as tensions rise and things take a more violent turn, Andoh still manages to convey this vulnerability, and capture the audience’s sympathy.
Andoh is well matched by Omole, who makes a confident debut as the young dreamer Fanuco. He holds his own in the two-person play, and his metamorphosis from cheeky teenage joker to grieving desperate young man is seamless. The influence of Assata on the young man, and his gradual rejection of it, is palpable in this assured performance, and Omole promises much.
Assata Taught Me is more than theatre. In just under an hour and a half, Ssebandeke’s interval-less work is theatre, musical, and political statement all rolled into one. Just as a grief-stricken Assata demands that Fanuco “Dance with me” through gritted teeth, the work demands that you enter, grips you, and leaves you reeling.
Assata Taught Me is playing the Gate Theatre until 27 May.