Tim Cornwell on the groundswell of Fringe shows by, and about, young black women

At the Scotsman Fringe Awards tomorrow morning, the performer Apphia Campbell is set to perform the song Wannabe Free, from her award-winning show, Woke. It's sung by her character Ambrosia, a naive US university student, a delightful dreamer whose story draws us along with her. Ambrosia is 'lovely, she wants to be a singer, take on the world,' Campbell says. But when she goes to Ferguson, Missouri, in the wake of the police shooting of Michael Brown, this innocent young black woman will see her dreams crumble around her.
Apphia Campbell in Woke.Apphia Campbell in Woke.
Apphia Campbell in Woke.

By all accounts, Campbell is part of a small phenomenon on the Fringe this year: a groundswell of shows by, and about, younger black women, in both the UK and overseas. The term BME is also used, for black and minority ethnicity, but “women of colour” is often preferred. The Fringe box office keeps no statistics, it says, on minority shows, so an exact figure is hard to come by. But it appears to be bringing a new generation of performers to the biggest arts festival in the world, while also delivering some of the strongest shows of this Fringe.

“I notice it a lot more, that there are a lot more women of colour this year,” says Campbell, though cautioning that reviewers often group the shows together. “I think it’s important, because the stories that are being told are different stories that people may not necessarily know of, may not necessarily hear.” In the era of Donald Trump, there’s “more urgency” to this, Campbell says, in what she hopes is “a changing image for the Fringe”.

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Against a powerful song list that mixes original music with traditional gospel and blues, Woke weaves together two narratives: of Ambrosia, in the present day, and of the Black Panther Assata Shakur, convicted of shooting a New Jersey state trooper to death in 1977. There are uneasy parallels between the two, 40 years apart.

Across town, at Summerhall’s new Army@theFringe venue, the choreographer Pauline Mayers, of The Mayers Ensemble, is leading audiences – who participate through the full hour of the show itself, and another hour of taut discussion after – in What if I Told You. She calmly choreographs the audience, in a work of inclusive beauty. It tells her own story as a Ballet Rambert-trained dancer, and that of James Sims, the 19th century South Carolina physician. He is called a “father of modern gynaecology”, but tested his procedures on female slaves without anaesthetic. It’s an extraordinary piece.

In the audience is Natalie Ibu, artistic director of Tiata Fahodzi, which means “theatre of the emancipated”, a company in London focused on the “changing and developing diaspora” of British Africans. She is working through a list of Fringe shows by black artists. “I certainly feel like there are a lot more shows by women of colour, where it’s their story, it’s informed from a personal place,” she says. The reasons? “It’s political and social. There’s something about this moment that either black women feel empowered, or they feel desperate to express their experience.”

At Summerhall itself, Jamaican actress Julene Robinson appears in The Black that I Am, a one-woman, multi-character piece that she says is “about Jamaica’s perspective on race and how we experience race within our own culture and outside of our own cultures.” After the show, she is chatting with Michal Keyamo, the director of Rupture, described as “a sci-fi tragi-comedy”.

“It gets to the point where you just have to fight for your place and your space and we can’t deny that,” Keyamo says. “The Fringe is the perfect platform to be seen and heard and build networks that can propel you into future work.”

She notes: “It’s very expensive, it’s almost crippling if you don’t have funding, or family money which a lot of people of colour do not have, do not have a shred. It’s almost a luxury, it shouldn’t be, to have access to art, to be creative, and encouraging a child who likes to sing and dance.”

Performers widely note what it’s like for both black actors, and rare black audience members, to be with audiences that are almost wholly white. “The other thing I notice, even though we have more people of colour shows here than maybe four years ago, we don’t have that many black audience members, because they can’t afford to come,” says Robinson.

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Natasha Marshall, who has written and performed the uplifting Half Breed, at Assembly, about a mixed-raced young woman from a West Country village as she prepares to audition for a London theatre school, has just managed to cross those hurdles. To write her piece, she moved back in with her granny in Bristol at the age of 26, to save rent, working at Sainsbury’s to make enough to live on.

“I need my voice to get heard, and I know that people need to hear this, that racism, borderline racism does still exist,” she says. “This is a story about being mixed race, but it’s also about surviving, and that’s what I didn’t anticipate. When I’m on stage performing I am fighting for my life, I feel like I am in a bloody boxing match, I’m fighting to show the audience I do deserve to be here, and the story does hold weight and does hold value.”

In the Main Hall at Summerhall esteemed Scottish director Graham Eatough is, presciently, perhaps, exploring similar territory, in his play How to Act, his first return to the Scottish stage in ten years. In it a veteran white theatre director, Robert, is giving an acting masterclass to a Nigerian-born student, Promise. In this post-colonial fable, the tables are turned, in a piece critic Joyce McMillan calls “a disturbing study of power and its abuses in the arts and beyond”. The show has been a sell-out.

Other notable shows this year include Salt, also at Summerhall, about a young black woman’s journey back to her Ghanaian roots: Yvette, at the Pleasance, about a 13-year-old growing up in Neasden; Mixed Brain, at Summerhall; Quarter Life Crisis, at Underbelly, about a Nigerian Briton, Alicia, growing up in London; and Bone Woman, by American storyteller Imani G Alexander, at Greenside Infirmary Street. Women of colour, and power, are championed in shows as diverse as the brash, popular Hot Brown Honey, and the actor and comedian Desiree Burch’s Unf*ckable, which by all accounts is not for the faint-hearted.

• Woke is at Gilded Balloon Teviot, 2pm, until 28 August. The Scotsman Fringe Awards are at the Pleasance Beyond, tomorrow, 10am. See pages 10-11 for details and ticket information.