Apphia Campbell’s play inspired by the life of Nina Simone returns to the London stage with a one-off performance at the Watermans in Brentford, under their Friday Nights Live umbrella.
The character we see on stage is not exactly Simone, although the songs sung are associated with her, including Mississippi Goddamn and I Put a Spell on You (written by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, whose version we hear played on a taped selection of songs covered by Simone, before the show starts). This lady becomes “Mina Bordeaux”, changing her name for the same reasons as Simone, to protect her church family from the association with “the Devil’s music”.
Campbell, in hair wrap and pulling items from a battered suitcase, pulls us into Mina/Nina’s world, imitiating her Bible-thumping mother, reinacting the classical concert where her parents were evicted from their prime “whites-only” seats, girlishly gushing over innocent love letters from her first boyfriend, recounting the vicious assault from the man who became her husband.
In song, she is no imitator but rather a celebrator of the woman who has clearly given her inspiration to become a singer and an activist (her follow-up show, Woke, is far more concerned with matters of race). The title of the play, Black is the Color of My Voice, both references the fact that she, Campbell, and Simone are both black women, but also the gentle Scots folk song which Simone made part of her regular repertoire in 1959.
Mina is a precocious talent, playing piano from the age of three, and dreaming of playing Carnegie Hall as a concert pianist. The fame she seeks comes with the civil rights movement and her songs of protest, fighting for the visibility of “my people” in the shadow of the speeches of Martin Luther King.
Soul Sessions, which has sometimes been performed together with the preceding play, was included in yesterday’s ticket as the second half of a double bill. Campbell returns to the stage in a long red gown and pearl necklace, engaging the audience in chat and delivering a range of Simone songs (accompanied by her pianist Tim Shaw).
With “I Loves You, Porgy” (Gershwin), “My Baby Just Cares For Me” (Donaldson and Kahn), “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” (written for her, but better known here for the hit version by The Animals), “Ain’t Got No/I Got Life” (MacDermot/Ragni/Rado), there is a flick of recognition and even some singing along – but the power of both Simone’s words and Campbell’s performance comes through in “Four Women” before the inevitable encore of the anthemic “Feeling Good” (Newley and Bricusse) which Simone truly made her own.
Soul Sessions is largely playful and teasing, stripped back to a sleek presentation by this confident performer who has even “forgotten my shoes”. It’s a relief in a way after the draining play we saw in the first half, a contrast to the hard life we have witnessed. I highly recommend both shows (which run at 70 minutes and 50 minutes respectively), but they can clearly stand on their own.