13 April 2017 •
Meet the Writer: Kalungi SsebandekeWe talked to Kalungi Ssebandeke about his writing for Assata Taught Me and about black power. Kalungi is an actor and playwright, having previously performed at the Gate in Image of an Unknown Young Woman.
What drew you to Assata Shakur and creating a play set in Cuba?
In 2014 I was perusing the Guardian website when I came across an article on the FBI’s Most Wanted Woman, a black woman by the name of Assata Shakur. Like many people I instantly assumed she was a blood relative of the rapper Tupac Shakur. After reading said article I was immediately astonished by the life this revolutionary black woman had lived. I was particularly drawn to the circumstances that led to her arrest and subsequent conviction as well as the prison sentence she miraculously cut short via her own volition, and she’s been living in Cuba for the last 32 years. Assata speaks for the oppressed, whether black or white, male or female, and she felt (and I’m confident she still does) that she couldn’t sit idly by as a few oppressed so many. Out of this ideology my play was born. How does a previously active member of the Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army now exiled in Cuba, continue to fight a system she was so vehemently opposed to? when in exile in Cuba, a country famously at odds with the aforementioned system? Two words: education and youth. Overall I was drawn to not only Assata the real life character but also Cuba as a country, which for me was the perfect setting for a play that could act as a microcosm of the struggle of the oppressed – in particular black people around the world. ChangeCuba for the US, UK, or South Africa, and Assata and Fanuco for your mother, brother, auntie or any relative, and you get a clear understanding of the universality of the struggle.
This is your first full length play commission as a playwright – what’s the process of writing been like for you and what advice would you give to a playwright starting out?
The process has been different in that the play was written with the confidence that it would be staged. It’s been a very enjoyable experience because I have had the support of the director Lynette Linton who offered me the opportunity to pitch the short play version of Assata Taught Me (that played at Young Vic’s Clare Space in 2015). It’s commonly said that writing is a very isolated and lonely practice which makes it appealing for an introvert like myself but having a director and other creatives that can give your play a fresh set of eyes is extremely helpful. This is exactly what has made the process worthwhile. I have been able to throw all the ideas I want with the knowledge that Lynette and the creative team will help trim the fat in a way that strengthens the piece. The advice I would give is the same advice I was given in the much earlier stages of my writing and that’s to WRITE. I would especially suggest that you set aside 90 mins each day to write, uninterrupted. And when I say write, I mean write regardless of the quality. Get it all out!
Your play tackles ideas of black identity and revolution – are there any books, productions, films, music or people that shaped your understanding of black power?
In terms of books, films and people: Assata: An Autobiography, the documentary Black Panthers: Vanguard of a Revolution by Stanley Nelson, Ava DuVernay’s 13th…the historians Ivan Van Sertima, John Henrik Clarkeand Yosef Jochannan. Frantz Fanon, in particular for Black Skin White Masks, Dr Francis Cres Welsing, and Members of the Black Panther Party: Huey P Newton, Bobby Seale, Katherine Cleaver and Assata Shakur. Also H Rap Brown, Kwame Toure (formerly Known as Storkely Carmichael who originated the slogan Black Power), Angela Davis, Thomas Sankara, Nelson Mandela, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King. For music:Miriam Makeba, Kendrick Lemar and any artist that creates art that has me feeling empowered.
Production wise I would definitely say, Eclipsed by Danai Gurira and The House That Will Not Stand by Marcus Gardley shaped my understanding of black power from a woman’s point of view. Films by Spike Lee contributed to my understanding of black power: Do The Right Thing, Get On The Bus and most recently Raol Peck’s I am Not Your Negro.
Why do you think people should come and see Assata Taught Me?
People should come and see Assata Taught Me because it’s a funny, deeply moving and thrilling play that tackles the universal issues of identity and self-determination whilst introducing an audience to a phenomenal woman who will leave them feeling empowered enough to get their power.
Assata Taught Me runs from 4–27 May. You can buy your tickets here.