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Review: Black is the Colour of my Voice

Image with the words Black is the Color of my Voice on the left hand side and an actress on the right hand side where bright colourful tunic.

By Becky May, Volunteer Woman Reporter for Bristol Women’s Voice

Apphia Campbell owns this masterpiece of a production, literally; she wrote it and stars in it as a one-woman show and owns every moment of the seventy-minute performance which has been playing to packed audiences since 2013.

‘Black is the Colour of my Voice’ is essentially the life story of Nina Simone, tortured genius singer, pianist and civil rights figure which is realised through a series of reminiscences from her lodgings in Liberia, a black utopia during the three years when Nina lived there in the 1970s.

A tribute to one of the 20th century great talents

The pseudonym ‘Mena Bordeaux’ is adopted for the purposes of the play to allow Campbell a little bit of freedom in the writing, but the life story sticks closely to the well-documented one of the real Nina.

As the curtains open we find Mena in her simple bedroom and we learn that in her grief, she is undertaking a cleansing ritual in an attempt to summon up the spirit of her late father, John, who has recently died. With the possible help of whisky, she eventually feels her father’s presence and from here Nina’s life story is told through her outpourings to John as well as through performances of many of her most well-known songs, including Porgy, ‘ put a Spell on You, Black is the Colour, To be Young, Gifted and Black, and Mississippi Goddam.

The love, longing, and regret she feels about her loss are almost palpable and the evocation incredibly moving. I had felt a little apprehension about how anybody could come near to matching the brilliance of Simone’s vocals but I need not have worried; Apphia Campbell’s performance was truly dazzling and a fitting tribute to one of the twentieth century’s greatest talents.

Whilst the set is simple the sound system is anything but basic; full whilst not overly loud and with a clarity which allowed every word to be heard.

The making of a prodigy

To help with the storytelling, Mena pulls out a series of keepsakes from a suitcase of treasures at the foot of her bed, including dresses from her early performances. She takes us through her life from the moment her deeply religious mother heard her playing a hymn on the piano at the age of three and realised that she had a child prodigy on her hands which she regarded as a gift from God that must be repaid by the performance of His music.

This also marks the moment the young Mena’s talent becomes the property of others, in turn that of God, her community who fundraise to send her to college and of the manager and man she married in 1961, who we learn treated her as a workhorse and cash cow, physically and psychologically abusing her until her eventual escape.

The flashback to one of the first moments when her husband assaulted her is brilliantly performed and difficult to watch with Nina’s raw fear, pain and incredulity played out in a way that pulls no punches.

The voice of the civil rights movement

Whilst Mena was insulated from the worst elements of racism in her early childhood and benefited from her mother’s benevolent employer paying for her early music lessons, she experienced a moment of realisation at the age of 11 when her parents were asked to move to the back of the hall for one of her first performances to make way for a white family.

Her sense of social justice and spirit of defiance were triggered and she refused to perform until her parents were restored to the front row. In the re-enactment of this scene we get a true sense of Nina’s strength of character.

Denied the chance to study music at the Curtis Institute of Music which she, no doubt correctly, attributed to her race, her sense of injustice deepens and we learn that although she is known as a jazz and soul singer, her ambition was always to be a great classical performer and not to play ‘the devil’s music’ as her mother called it.

It was never to be but instead Nina became the voice of the civil rights movement and will be remembered almost as much as for her activism and revolutionary spirit as for her music; she believed that violence would be necessary to bring about race equality.

Real Girls Talk

Though the play does not specifically address this, she was also a feminist and she notes in her autobiography, “I Put a Spell on You,” that:

“[we] never talked about men or clothes or other such inconsequential things when we got together. It was always Marx, Lenin, and revolution—real girls’ talk”.

In an era when it feels as though in the mainstream women are being duped more and more into concerning themselves with their appearance (as are many men to be honest, with male body image anxiety now affecting millions of men) and other ‘inconsequential things’, it is incredibly inspiring to immerse oneself for one evening in the life of such a fiercely intelligent, though complicated force of nature as Nina Simone who lived with mental illness but who never gave up the fight.

As the play ended, the audience’s enduring applause brought Campbell back onto the stage and she looked deeply moved, as were we all.

Black is the Colour of my Voice was playing at the Bristol Old Vic:  

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