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Theatre review Masterpiece, goddamn!

GEORGE FOGARTY is gripped by a brilliant one-woman show about the singer Nina Simone

Black is the Colour of My Voice
Oxford Playhouse

BLACK is the Colour of My Voice is a one-woman play about the life of Nina Simone, delivered by means of a single extended soliloquy addressed to her father over a night of reflections and recollections.

Apphia Campbell does a wonderful job of bringing her subject to life, expertly capturing the conflicting aspects of Simone’s personality, from her raucous sense of humour and exuberance, to her bitterness, determination, and thirst for freedom and justice.

The fragments narrated are well chosen to illustrate these contradictory elements, one in particular seeming to demonstrate all of them at once, when Simone, as a child, gave her first concert. Just before she began, she saw her parents being ushered to the back of the hall due to the venue’s segregationist policies. Simone began laying into staff and audience alike, warning them that they had better bring her parents to the front right away “unless you would like to spend the rest of the evening watching this empty seat?”

Also clearly depicted is the frequent disappointment in Simone’s life. Her rejection from the Curtis Institute for classical music training — almost certainly racially motivated, given her extraordinary talents as a classical pianist — was particularly painful.

After being given “the greatest gift in the world” — the music of Bach — by her music teacher, she said, she “never wanted to play anything else,” and was determined to become the first black concert pianist in America “by any means necessary.” The frustration of this ambition meant that even her otherwise triumphant concert at Carnegie Hall was overshadowed by the fact that it was not as the classical pianist she felt she was meant to be.

Nor does Campbell shirk from some of the more harrowing aspects of her tumultuous life, including the domestic violence at the hands of her husband Arthur.

Interspersed throughout, however, are frequent doses of humour and of course, wonderful music. Campbell has an extraordinarily versatile voice which more than does justice to the high bar demanded by the material, and manages to strike just the right balance between authentic replication and making the songs her own, allowing the audience to connect to what they know whilst also hearing something fresh.

Also prominent — how could it not be? — is Simone’s uncompromising political militancy. “I wanna bomb THEIR church!” she screams at Arthur after the Birmingham church bombing in which four young black girls were killed; “I wanna see THOSE sons of bitches eyes red from crying!” before getting furious at her husband for not showing her how to make a bomb.

“All you have is your music,” he calmly replies. And thus Mississippi Goddam was born. Her exhilaration at singing, nay hollering, those uncensored truths at America marks the emotional peak of the performance, as she asks us “do you know how it feels to know your purpose?”

An incredible performance, by turns intense and intimate, and thoroughly recommended.

On tour until April 27. For more information see: bitcomv.com

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