Wednesday 20th September 2017 at West Yorkshire Playhouse.
The word on the lips of those leaving the theatre yesterday was ‘clever’. ‘He’s so clever’ – ‘wasn’t that so cleverly done’ – and they were absolutely right. The observations and insights of this ‘conscious MC’, Testament, combined with his mind-bending musical talent is brilliant as he offers opinions on hip hop, feminism, social history and personal responsibility. The material in WOKE, a co-production of West Yorkshire Playhouse, Royal exchange Theatre, Camden People’s Theatre and in association with Little Mighty, is vast and covers surprising reference points like the gender politics behind the Wall Street Crash down to enlightening, fresh perspectives on the lyrics of musical greats like James Brown. If you don’t know already, Testament is a World Record holding beatboxer and rapper. He’s also a self-identified feminist who is tickled and perturbed by the surprising combination of his first love of hip hop and his blossoming love for making the world a better place for his daughter, Elise. Over the course of just over an hour, Testament takes us on a journey through time; he shares thoughts on his life before the arrival of his daughter; his realisation of what the world as it is would offer his daughter and his determination to change himself for the better – to do something, rather than point at problems and hiss.
If you’re not a fan of beatboxing or you’re just clueless, this guy is the guy to see to dip your toe in the water. I’m a fan of rap and of performance poetry, with an existing appreciation of the art of toying with perceptions through clever manipulation of the language used, so this show proved to be a particular hit with me. But even if it’s not your usual scene, take a chance and see this because it is brilliantly clever in more ways than one. It’s gripping to watch Testament record and layer sounds there and then as a back drop to each of his rap-monologues. To hear rap accompanied by the classic sounds within a hip-hop track and an academic register, with all the profanity and false bravado replaced with contemplations of feminist issues, is fascinating. The social commentary is sharply observed and brutally honest while Testament playfully signposts ‘political’ or ‘inclusive’ references for us as he aims to bring his message to the masses with a mischievous smile and a glint in his eye. Most impressive and memorable are the deconstructions of the paradigms in hip hop songs, the rejection of assumptions made about him as a black man out with his daughter and the improvised finale which took offerings from the audience to produce a rap of inspiration for his daughter. I distinctly remember catching something fantastic in each track, whether linguistic or content, so I can say that I was very impressed with Testament’s writing for WOKE.
What’s most interesting about this one man show is the honesty and the self-awareness. Testament takes to the mic later in the performance not to rap, but to deliver a speech as if at a Sexists Anonymous gathering. He analyses his changing perspectives from childhood to fatherhood with stunned realisations and signs of deep regret, encouraging his audience to do the same. He confesses that there’s a long way to go for him, and offers ways in which he, and other men, might strive to be better at supporting women. The idea of being ‘woke’ is, as far as I can surmise, about a wealth of knowledge drawn from analysis and reflection both external and internal, about the world around us. This appears to allow a person to reach a point of omniscient wisdom and a state in which you cannot be misled by cloaks and daggers, smoke and mirrors or a great beat smothering malicious lyrics. Testament acknowledges his progress to date, accepts that his evaluation of his sexist and misogynistic views of the past now puts him in remission, and reassures us that there’s more treatment ahead in preparation for the day he’s in Topshop with Elise and his opinion matters not a jot.
The final aspect of this performance to praise is the inclusion of Testament’s young five year old daughter. She isn’t actually there of course, but he includes her as if she were. He speaks to her about bedtime and gains laughs by softening up at the feet of a determined youngster who likes to argue her case. He avoids awkward questions which should never find their way into the mind of a child and through her recurring appearances, he skilfully illustrates how his daughter’s presence in his life has prompted the commentaries and social deconstructions in his performance pieces. I loved the closing scene beyond measure; an interaction with the unseen Elise forces Testament to admit to the shortcomings of calling a one-man show about feminism WOKE. It’s hilarious to see him chastised by this knowing small female who accuses his show of being just another example of female perspectives told through the eyes of a male… Even while voiceless, that little girl, or her father’s impression of her, manages to highlight every flaw in this commendable tribute from father to daughter – but doesn’t ignore that this man is doing something rather than nothing. WOKE is honest, it is hugely skilful with language, observant throughout and sentimental in places – not to mention funny. It’s a brilliant show, and you should see Testament’s work at West Yorkshire Playhouse before his run ends on the 22nd September! You can get your tickets here.