Writer: Apphia Campbell
Director: Arran Hawkins and Nate Jacobs
Reviewer: David Guest
Legendary singer, songwriter, musician, arranger, and civil rights activist Nina Simone may be the inspiration for Black is the Color of My Voice– but Apphia Campbell’s extraordinary writing and performance give the solo performer at the centre of the piece an identity all her own.
The thesaurus doesn’t have many synonyms for the word sensational, but every single one should be applied to the mere 70 minutes of this impressive show currently at The Vaults, which only a matter of weeks ago was playing to acclaim at the Trafalgar Studios and which has been touring for the past six years.
Apphia Campbell has recently been touring WOKE, reminding us that black lives matter. In Black is the Color of My Voice the message is surely that black voices matter too as the singer portrayed discovers her amazing musical gifts and later becomes a leading light in the civil rights movement.
The name of the singer is Mena Bordeaux, born as Eugena Williams before taking on a stage name. To all intents and purposes the story is about Eunice Waymon who changed her name to Nina Simone, but it’s not hard to see why Campbell wants us to see beyond the biography and into the heart of developing one’s abilities and passionate responses to shocking racism.
A simple set is transformed into a bedroom, a living room, a concert hall, a dressing room and others as Mena recounts her story to her dead father’s photograph. The fact that she is going through a period of “cleansing” free of booze, cigarettes and telephone means she is edgy as she determines to “face the past and look to the future.” There is also an effort to find closure and redemption after the death of her father.
We learn how music has shaped her life, from her mum singing gospel songs in the kitchen to dancing with dad in the living room, but a key moment comes when she starts playing her mother’s favourite hymns on the piano at the age of three. An excited mother says, “You have a gift and we’re going to see that you use it for the glory of God.”
But as Mena develops an affinity for Bach and classical music, resolutely deciding to be the first black concert pianist, she discovers the harsh consequences of “not being white enough,” facing prejudice and discrimination even as she applies to a music school to begin the fulfilment of her dream (the programme notes the irony of the same establishment awarding her an honorary degree two days before her death in 2003).
The performance takes us through Mena’s life as she starts playing jazz, blues and classical music on the piano in a nightclub, where she is told she must also sing, whichleads to her changing her name as she realises the family will regard this as playing the devil’s music and “spitting in God’s face.” She goes through unsatisfactory relationships before through finding her true love, though was to experience domestic psychological and physical abuse at the hands of a manager/husband.
At an early concert her parents are moved from their front row seats to make way for whites and this sows the seeds for what would become a full engagement with the cause of black civil rights, fanned into flame by the bombing of a Baptist church in Alabama in 1963, which killed four young girls.
Her response to that event was the song Mississippi Goddam, the first of many protest songs addressing racial inequality in America, and she says these make her feel alive. When the police started raiding houses of members of the Black Panther movement she notes, “the first thing they took away was my records.”
It’s a fascinating history lesson both as the personal journey of a gifted young black musician struggling to be recognised for her art and for the layered backdrop of civil rights with roots as diverse as President Kennedy’s “race has no place” promise and Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech and later assassination.
Campbell gives a nod to Nina Simone by wearing a trademark headwrap and singing some of her great hits, but there’s a sense of this being part of a bigger picture. Her song To Be Young, Gifted and Black would become the theme tune for civil rights but this is as much a cry from the heart of a beleaguered people and their struggle for freedom and identity.
The historical framework of radical politics, the Montgomery marches, black nationalism, and civil rights activism is a crucial part of the story but this is always brilliantly balanced by the power of the personal journey and the unforgettable music.
There is never any attempt to sanitise the harsh true life story and character of an artistic genius, but there is a lot more to this production than merely retelling the tale of a tortured soul or blasting the audience with loud political statements.
In the recounting of the story alone Campbell, who also wrote the piece, is on fire with a mesmerising performance filled with indignation and intensity. But she adds to this through the singing of the songs – such as I Loves You, Porgy, Black is the Colour of My True Love’s Hair, I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free and the rousing Feeling Good – never as an impersonation of the High Priestess of Soul, but each given her own stylish interpretation.
Arran Hawkins and Nate Jacobs direct, making wise use of the small stage and context, and the tight lighting (designed by Clancy Flynn) and sound (Joseph Degnan and Tom Lishman) cues add finesse. Even after six years of touring in a range of venues, this is a show and a performance that remain fresh, invigorating and heartfelt.
Apphia Campbell once again proves her astonishing ability as a creative artist, writer and performer in an irresistible show that not only unpacks the life of a legend but also showcases a contemporary star, who will surely rise from strength to strength.
Runs until July 13, 2019 | Image: Geraint Lewis