Adjoa Andoh

Adjoa Andoh

Image by Assata Taught Me

Daniel Nelson

Assata Olugbala Shakur is an African-American activist, a member of the former Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army, who was convicted of the murder of a state trooper in 1977. She escaped from prison in 1979 and fled to Cuba in 1984, gaining political asylum. The following year, decades after the shoot-out, the FBI put her on the Most Wanted Terrorist list, with a $2 million bounty.

That's a dramatic story - you can get the details from WikiPedia. Now playwright Kalungi Ssebandeke has given it a further dramatic spin in an 80-minute play, Assata Taught Me, about an imagined relationship between the American radical - Tupac's great aunt and godmother -  and a 21-year-old Cuban law student, Fanuco, known to some of his friends as Blackie, whose aim is to get to the land of big bucks.

To him, Obama is cool. To her, Obama has done little to change, or even challenge, US power structures. To her, Cuba is a refuge, her salvation. To him, it's a cage in which he sees no future.

She thinks she can reorient him, to guide him to become proud of his African heritage, to reject the lure of a country that once lynched its black population and now uses its police force to shoot them. He knows nothing of her past and sees her as a possible teacher, someone who can help improve his English that will open US doors and enable him to earn enough money to support his mother and siblings.

The clash of aims and interests is vividly drawn in a series of short, powerful scenes, culminating in an act of simulated racial violence that triggers an even more dramatic denouement.

The finale seems to run out of Ssebandeke's control - though the play is set during Obama's visit to Cuba so guns would certainly be cocked - but overall the play is a sharply written, passionately acted two-hander with enormous wit and energy. 

* Assata Taught Me is at the Gate Theatre, 11 Pembridge Road, W11, until 2 June. Info: 7229 0706/ https://www.gatetheatre.co.uk/

+ Meet the Writer: Kalungi Ssebandeke 

+ Adjoa Andoh: 'I dropped out of law school to act'

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