Writer and Performer: Apphia Campbell
Director: Arran Hawkins
Reviewer: Paul Couch
When singer Nina Simone died in 2003, the world lost one of the last great legends of the American jazz club circuit along with the likes of Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn and Dinah Washington. Simone trained as a classical concert pianist but soon found her true vocation – playing “the Devil’s Music” in the smoky, claustrophobic clubs of New Jersey.
In Black is the Color of My Voice, Apphia Campbell takes the turbulent life of Simone and creates a parallel fictional character (an intellectual property issue perhaps?) called Mena Bordeaux – every inch Simone in all but name and runs with it. Oh, does she run. And fly. And soar. Her 70-minute one-woman show is engaging, moving and a powerful reminder of the struggle for equality that African-Americans faced, particularly in the middle of the 20th Century.
The real Simone wasn’t just a virtuoso pianist, singer and songwriter, she was also a staunch activist for Civil Rights and it was this passion that forged the artist into the figure we know so well. Accordingly, Mena Bordeaux’s social conscience keeps time and we mourn with her the murders of Martin Luther King, assassinated in 1968, fellow activist Medgar Evers, who was killed in 1963, and four African-American children who died in a bomb attack at 16th Street Baptist Church, in Birmingham, Alabama the same year.
After successful outings in Shanghai, New York, and the Edinburgh Festival, this is the first UK tour of Campbell’s show and, to be honest, she seems a little taken aback by all the rapturous applause she receives. She needn’t be – her portrayal of (not) Nina Simone is sublime; she wrings passion and humour or pathos from every line and her voice is a vast cavern of perfect sound that mirrors the source material flawlessly.
There is one uncomfortable problem with Black Is the Color of My Voice in that it suffers from a bit of an identity crisis. For whatever reason, Campbell isn’t portraying Nina Simone, she’s portraying a doppelganger, albeit one who sings beautifully Simone’s catalogue. With no programme notes to explain this, the show is likely a little confusing to those who know Simone’s story and who have missed the small-print statement: “Inspired By The Life of Nina Simone”.
Once our brains have adapted to the skewed reality, however, we can sit back and enjoy a delicious selection of Simone classics such as I Put A Spell On You, To Be Young, Gifted and Black, the infamous protest song Mississippi Goddam and, of course, New Dawn. Unfortunately, it’s all over too soon and we get the feeling that there’s much more to this story to come.
Apphia Campbell has arrived, ostensibly from nowhere, and is destined to be recognised as a major performing talent in the very near future.
Reviewed on 2 February 2017 (then touring until 21 April 2017)
For tour details: www.apphiacampbell.com