Concept: Josette Bushell-Mingo
Director: Dritëro Kasapi
Reviewer: James Garrington
When she was 12 years old, Nina Simone was asked to perform her first recital at a church meeting. Her proud parents were there in the front pew – but when they were moved to the back of the church to make way for white people at the front, the young Simone refused to play until they were allowed to return to the front. So began a lifetime of political activism, using her music to fight for Black rights.
It’s difficult to place Nina – A Story About Me and Nina Simone into any specific pigeonhole. It is a tribute, but not in the traditional sense, although it does include a number of Simone’s songs. Whatever you choose to call it, it is undoubtedly an incredibly powerful piece of theatre, as Josette Bushell-Mingo uses a mixture of music and monologue in an outpouring of anger against racism. “How,” she says, “have we got to the time when we need to say Black Lives Matter?” She rattles off names and dates, too many to take in. Stephen Lawrence. Steve Beko. Laquan McDonald, and as she talks she stamps her foot, once for each of the 16 bullets fired by the Chicago cop who shot the unarmed teenager, all while images of racial abuse flash up on the screen behind her.
Bushell-Mingo is mesmerising in this one-woman show, and within seconds of her coming on stage you want to hear every word she is saying. Not only does she have a superb voice, performing the music beautifully, but she has a wonderful sense of dramatic delivery as she uses comedy, reasoned argument and controlled rage to drive her point home. Then she brings the house lights up, and speculates about a scenario where she kills all the white people in the theatre. It’s all rather overwhelming and unsettling, especially if you have one of the many white faces in the audience.
Drawing parallels between Simone’s life and times and her own, the joys, sorrows and anger, this is an enthralling and memorable 80-minute theatrical roller-coaster that is almost guaranteed to make you think long after you’ve left the theatre.
Runs until 10 February and on tour | Image: Simon Annand