Concept: Josette Bushell-Mingo
Director: Dritëro Kasapi
Reviewer: John Kennedy
To fans, friends and family, Nina Simone’s profession and personal life comprised an irresolvable struggle to define her identity regarding artistry and racial heritage as much as it was to be able to love, be loved and find a sense of belonging. With her passionate involvement with the 60s Black Civil Rights movement in the American south and the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, being an outspoken black woman made her a very likely target herself.
Asked what Freedom meant to her she responded with a weary intensity, ‘Freedom is to be free of fear.’ For her closest and indefatigable friends, perhaps, Simone’s greatest fear was that of herself. This was soon to manifest itself with destructive consequences.
Volatile relationships, a lifelong anger that her opportunity for a prestige classical training scholarship was denied through (she believed) racism, her constant battle with record companies and an emerging bipolar disorder gave vent to public displays of her emotional and psychological demons. Variously described as a reborn African queen rôle model, a princess noir jazz player with a classical sensibility, her signature mercurial mood swings, increasing indifference to performance times and once exacting demand for perfection later defined her career as much as her indisputable, influential talent and charisma.
Unity Theatre’s collaborative approach in realising Josette Bushell-Mingo’s parallel biographical/autobiographical concept dynamic is compelling, often viscerally bleak and agonisingly prescient. ‘Part theatre, part concert, part gospel and part spoken word’ the immersive ‘Me’ denotes Bushell-Mingo though its broader, inclusive connotations are self-evident.
As projection montage images of the 1969 Harlem Civil Rights demonstrations mark the moment of Simone’s Damascene conversion to the call for revolution – Bushell-Mingo demands silence from her three-piece backing band. Something all musicians who worked with Simone were all too familiar with. Doesn’t ‘revolution’ just mean a return to the status quo? From this potent question Bushell-Mingo launches a polemic rage cataloguing events and statistics where police and vigilantes have inflicted systemic violence and sanctioned murder on black people from Steve Biko to Stephen Lawrence and many more, before and after. Later, there is a recorded quote from Simone advocating taking up shotguns. Bushell-Mingo posits a disturbing hypothesis to the audience. What if she just didn’t care enough about her life but for the satisfaction in seeking revenge on white people, those in front of her, right now? 2014, Chicago, where Laquan McDonald was shot sixteen times by a police officer from approximately ten feet away. With each shot Bushell-Mingo freezes the moment to recount atrocities that resonate like a macabre metronome. For her at least, the white-man’s God of forgiveness is conspicuous in its absence. Simone sought identity and purpose drawing on the once suppressed pantheon of pan-African gods now sublimated within spiritual/gospel music. However, the fact that she never became a classical pianist haunted her entire life.
Being highly subjective and selective in drawing on Simone’s life and inspiration, her later afflictions and career car-crashes play no part in tonight’s homage. (Simone’s ghosted autobiography is historically flexible to say the least.) Far from detracting from her rôle-model importance, they played an inseparable part of her tortured brilliance. Vitally, however, the incident where eleven-year-old Eunice Waymon refuses to start her piano recital unless her parents are allowed to remain seated at the front is recounted. The significance of that gesture alone in the incandescent life to follow still remains stupefying. The show closes with Bushell-Mingo undergoing a dazzling transformation as an elegantly gowned, golden dripping Nina Simone ready to lay down some serious vibes with the jazz trio – Stanley Forbes, drums, Neville Hamilton on bass with musical director, Shapor Bastansiar, on keyboards. ‘Nina can’t be here tonight – I’m her understudy.’ A vibrant medley of Simone classics proves Bushell-Mingo has a voice of her own. While eschewing any affection of imitation or impersonation she subtly exploits the spaces between the silence. Her version of Mississippi Goddam relishes in the influences of Weill/Brecht’s Threepenny Opera – deceptive, melodic jollity juxtaposed with cynical fury. Every year and counting more deaths demand an additional verse. An incandescent celebration of a princess noir become phoenix African queen. Subsumed in the spirit of an iconic golden goddess of the primal beat – Josette Bushell-Mingo gets to the heart of some very dark matters. A fitting tribute for International Women’s Day.
Runs until 10 March 2018 and on tour | Image: Simon Annand