Black is the Color of my Voice, Bristol Old Vic

THERE are all sorts of reasons for becoming obsessed with a person or a subject – Stephen Taylor, traumatised by the death of his parents, painted the same tree over and over again, and Mark Hirsch photographed the same tree every day for a year. Already fascinated by the life and works of Nina Simone, Apphia Campbell was galvanised by the ill-informed remarks of a man in a Shanghai bar into gathering all the information she could find on this singer, songwriter, arranger and civil rights activist, and creating a show to illustrate all these aspects of Simone’s full life.

It is one thing to have the idea for such a show, but quite another to write it in a manner that will attract audience interest and to find someone capable of presenting Nina Simone the singer and Nina Simone the women. What format should it take? ­– a big scale musical featuring many of her iconic songs, or something smaller, concentrating on the passionate beliefs she held and which so dominated her life?

The finished work, which opened in Shanghai in 2013 and has since toured the world, (New York, Edinburgh, London, Australia) all with equal success, is a one-woman show set on a sparsely dressed set, with a handful of Simone numbers interlaced into a powerful and passionate telling of her life story. Hollywood was famous, or infamous, for sanitising the life stories of famous musicians, to the extent that they were hardly recognisable. You can not accuse Apphia Campbell of going down that same line, but she does bend the story to add power and emphasis to the arguments Nina Simone fought so passionately for, opposing racism and racial prejudice, from both of which she suffered many times.

The narrative takes the form of Nina using a framed photograph to talk to, as she tries to make contact with her dead father. It is full of regrets for opportunities missed rather than mistakes made. The racism suffered by her generation (she was born in 1933), opportunities denied them, – in her case a chance to study to be a concert pianist, she believed because of her colour – and the life-threatening hardships that civil rights campaigners suffered, are brought out with passionate belief.

To accomplish this in a dramatic manner, never losing sight of the character, takes acting ability of the highest level. To interlace the story with vocals that match a singer who sang and composed protest numbers like Mississippi Goddam and also recorded more than 40 albums selling over a million CDs, is another fearsome challenge. The way that Apphia Campbell opens herself up emotionally as she inhabits the spirt of Nina Simone is at times frightening, and the way in which she interprets those vocals, many of them much loved and well remembered, is a delight.

This show, which is a fitting tribute to Nina Simone, her beliefs and music, has taken over Apphia Campbell’s life for the past ten years and the schedule for the rest of the year shows a UK tour and a return visit to Australia, so it’s far from over yet.

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