DramaLondonReviewWest End

Black is the Color of My Voice / Soul Sessions – Trafalgar Studios, London

Writer and Performer: Apphia Campbell

Directors: Arran Hawkins and Nate Jacobs

Reviewer: Stephen Bates

Born on 21 February 1933 in Tyron, North Carolina, Eunice Kathleen Waymon, sixth child of a preacher man, was to become Nina Simone, internationally renowned soul singer and American Civil Rights activist. Her story is told here in Black is the Color of My Voice, a 70-minute monologue, written and performed by New Yorker Apphia Campbell. The play is followed at some performances by Soul Sessions, a 50-minute celebration of Simone’s music, which is ticketed separately. 

The small stage is furnished with just a single bed, a wooden table and chairs and a screen when Campbell emerges, looking waifish and vulnerable as Simone. The play is structured as a conversation with the singer’s late father, with whom she seeks a posthumous reconciliation. We hear of a child who trains to become a gifted concert pianist, incurring the wrath of her mother when, as a young adult, she turns to “the devil’s music”.

We feel that this is a woman in search of her own identity, whose life is driven by a deep-rooted love of music in all its forms. A telling moment comes when the young Eunice refuses to continue with a piano recital because racial segregation in the audience discriminates against her parents and a lifelong campaign for equality and justice begins. 

Otherwise the storytelling is sketchy and the monologue, interrupted too infrequently by extracts from songs, occasionally feels over-contrived. This is a life lived against the backdrop of huge social turmoil, but, with the exception of one account of an abusive relationship, it is not, as told here, a life of high personal drama and Campbell struggles to make the story gripping.

Soul Sessions is presented in simple cabaret style. Campbell, accompanied by Tim Shaw on keyboards, performs a selection of Simone’s best-known songs, linking them with relaxed, good-humoured banter. Sinner Man, Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood, Feeling Good, I Got Life and To Love Somebody all feature and her rendition of George Gershwin’s I Love You Porgy is outstanding.

Seen together, the two shows are less revelatory about Simone than we may have hoped, but they work much better as a showcase for the considerable talents of Campbell. When she opens her arms wide as if to embrace the whole audience, singing I Put a Spell on You, she really means it.

Runs until 2 March 2019 | Image: Contributed

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