Writer: Apphia Campbell
Directors: Arran Hawkins and Nate Jacobs
Apphia Campbell’s Fringe First award-winning show has enjoyed the successes of London, New York, Shanghai, and Edinburgh and now finds itself streaming digitally for the first time. Reflecting on the journey from church service to renowned vocalist and forefront of the Civil Rights Movement, Black Is The Color Of My Voice in less a direct autobiography of activist, singer and arranger Nina Simone and more an emulation of her journey.
In moments, pure artistry and metamorphic ability are visible upon the stage as Campbell transitions from performance and into a respectful representation. As both writer and performer, there’s an inherent sense of autonomy in the manner Campbell carries herself, performing the role of both herself but also with the inspirations and knowledge of a well-known public figure.
Eugenia may be a composite of Simone’s past and Campbell’s licensing, but the relatability she possesses with audiences no doubt matches the success the show has seen. These difficult relationships, and the horrific abuse and systemic and direct racism the writing covers is lacerating, and the decision to push the production as a narrative inspired by Simone pushes the audience into understanding the issues are reflective of a collective, rather than an individual.
Cast around Eugenia’s room are a series of sparking memories: photos, instruments, or framed records. Although filmed in front of a live audience at London’s Wilton Music Hall, it’s still refreshing to see a sense of design utilised for digital production. It makes for a tangible sense of weight to Campbell’s performance as she interacts with props and the set.
‘The Devil’s Music’, is a notorious slur for the late-night dens of inequity that housed piano, jazz, blues, and variations of contemporary classics. If hell is where this music originates, it’s the place to party. Whether it be I Put A Spell on You, Four Women or the activist anthem To Be Young, Gifted and Black, the measure of Simone’s work is, without question, a significant influence throughout the music industry.
Silky, and in the most natural way possible, the songs flow in tandem with the emotional unravelling of the story and in no way come over as stilted or (thankfully) Jukebox. Organically stitched throughout, the manner in which Campbell moves into musical numbers gives credence to the original intentions of the lyrics and their birth out of pain, elation, or fury. Often the credibility is enhanced by directors Arran Hawkins and Nate Jacobs who turn the songs into a more poetic sense of storytelling.
A welcome addition (and at first thought a wholly unnecessary one) is Clancy Flynn’s lighting decisions, which push the boundaries of the otherwise reality-centric production. This occasional blanche of colour or vignette dimming to intensify focus is a bizarre form of outstanding subtlety, seldom used but, when thought back on, captures each moment precisely.
Dab hands can spot crocodile tears a mile away, and their use within theatre can come over as schmaltzy or manipulative. But occasionally, an emerging sense of sincerity and intimately authentic sense of self shines through in a rare piece of performance, where the tears are genuine and are not forged out of sadness or cheap emotion but erupt with passion, understanding and pride. Campbell is undoubtedly proud of Black Is The Color Of My Voice – and she has every right to be.
Available here until 18 July 2021 and performed live at Wilton’s Music Hall 2-4 August 2021