Afrocentric Theatre, Music, Culture and Business

Director’s Interview – Assata Taught Me Director’s Interview – Assata Taught Me
Director’s Interview – Assata Taught Me

Assata Shakur, who has been living in exile in Cuba for over thirty years, is a hero to communist revolutionaries for her involvement in the 1960s and 1970s with the Black Panther Party offshoot called the Black Liberation Army. A new play at the Gate Theatre, London retells her exploits to a new generation through a conversation with a young Cuban man.


Breeze magazine met up with the director Lynette Linton to talk revolution, chicken and chips, Twitter, Samuel L Jackson and more.


BM: Hi, this is Tayo, Editor of Ebonyonline.net we just want to talk to you about the production ‘Assata Taught Me’ in which you are the director. So can you start off by telling us a bit more about the play and what it’s about?
LL It’s a fictional relationship between Assata Shakur, who as we know was Tupac Shakur’s godmother and Franco, a young Cuban boy who has no idea of who she is and she starts to teach him English after a chance meeting. As the play progresses, she learns more about her and she about him. He wants to go America and she has issues with America obviously given her history and by the end of the play he works out who she is. So it’s an imagined conversation between two people from different sides of the world whose only connection seems initially to be their skin colour. It also opens up your eyes about Assata Shakur herself.


BM: So what was it about Assata herself that appealed to you?
LL When I looked more into her story, I asked myself how I had not heard this woman’s story, especially a powerful Black woman. Then when I read her autobiography I absolutely fell in love with her. So it was easier to put this piece together and we decided this is what we have to do. My question was why is this Black history not being taught in schools and that was essentially the question Assata was posing throughout her book.


BM: So what do you want the audience to get out of the play? Is it for them to see the conflict between their two ideals or goals?
LL I think it’s really interesting, for instance the statement that Samuel L Jackson make about British actors playing Black American roles, it made reflect on what was the Black experience across the world and the experiences are all very different. The African American experience is not the only Black experience.


It was really interesting to explore a character who is Cuban, a Black Cuban and his story which I hadn’t heard before and I’m sure a lot of the audience haven’t heard as well. So putting him in the mix with someone like Assata I felt make for very powerful theatre and to be able to explore Black politics at the same time.


BM: Let’s touch on that Samuel L Jackson’s comment which has caused a lot of furore on social media. So what’s your take on it?
LL I totally disagree with what he said. The whole point of acting is that you understand a character and their experience. So I felt it was a comment that was out of place and it was a conflict that was not needed. It was very divisive and unnecessary as well.


BM: So tell us a bit about your previous directorial credits and which stand out in particular?
LL I’m a writer as well as a director, so I would say my last play #Hashtag Lightie at the Arcola which I wrote and Rikki Beadle Blair directed we explore what it is to be mixed race in Britain today. It allowed me to explore and tell British stories that aren’t being told. That’s a play I’m incredibly proud of and it looks like it might be coming back later this year.


BM: You also did a play at the Stratford Arts Theatre centre, called Chicken Palace. Sounds intriguing. So tell us a bit more about that?
LL So we built a chicken shop inside the theatre and everyone had chicken and chips. So again it was about exploring unheard voices. I grew up in East London, so the whole issue of gentrification is something that needs to be spoken about. So a chicken shop is a really interesting place and Stratford as well, so it was a really interesting setting to have some of those conversations.


People are always saying to me your work is very political. Yeh, so it is actually, hopefully with a bit of comedy. I co-directed that as well. I’m off to work as assistant director at the Donmar Warehouse after Assata, so all good.


BM: So what words would you have for an aspiring playwright or director in dealing with issues of race and racism?
LL I think it’s about standing your ground and know why you’re doing what you’re doing. I come from a working class background and I’m a woman of colour and I walk and I walk into a theatrical situation and I’m the only one who’s Black or from that kind of background there. It can feel intimidating but if you know why you’re there and what you want to do, what story you want to tell you can overcome that feeling. Just remember our voices and stories are just as important.


I would say keep fighting, keep pushing, just keep being you and well break down those walls. And the other thing I’d like to say is not to be afraid to talk about racism or the prejudice you’re receiving. To actually say that’s not OK, even if it’s subtle. So that white people can say OK, and not be uncomfortable to have that conversation. Because in most cases it’s not you that has brought racism into the room. It’s usually someone else who has done or said something.


BM: There has a been a lot of interest in Assata herself of late, not least America’s request to have her returned to the USA.
LL She’s going to be 70 this year. I, our designer and the writer Kalungi Ssebandeke went to Cuba late last year just to get a feel for the place. Unfortunately we didn’t get to meet her but we met her friend. She hadn’t seen her for a while; I don’t think people have seen her for a while. It’s actually very difficult to find out anything about her as well. So many people are wondering where she is.


BM: Your play is very important and timely in that it brings the whole Black Panther movement and Black politics to the fore once again because it’s a story that always needs to be retold.
LL What’s interesting is the writer has set play in 2016. We know she’s was a Black Panther, we know she was involved in Black politics, but how does all of that relate to that relate to the modern day and how does that relate to a young Cuban boy. This was what he is trying to explore.


BM: Thank you very much Lynette for the interview, good luck with the directing and we’re really looking forward to seeing the production which starts the 4th of May.


Assata Taught Me, 4-27 May

Gate Theatre, 11 Pembridge Rd (above the Prince Albert Pub) , W11 3HQ  Click here for full details.

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