22nd Jun, 2018

Birmingham Rep's Nina Simone story 'not easy theatre' but provides plenty of talking points

Droitwich Editorial 9th Mar, 2018

THE SCRIPT for ‘Nina – A Story about Me and Nina Simone’ does not have a writer credit.

We are told, it was not written but crafted in Sweden and Liverpool via a collaboration between ‘Riksteatern’ – (Sweden’s National Theatre and ‘Unity Theatre’ Liverpool’s acclaimed company.

Into the creative mix went email contributions from Macedonia, the USA and even Iran.

The common purpose was that all participants wanted this show not just to honour the life and music of a legend, but to make a difference by asking difficult questions she herself never stopped asking. The result is a unique, powerful and disturbing piece of musical theatre.

It is essentially a one woman and a band show – but that is quite insulting to what Josette Bushell-Mingo and three of the most talented musicians in the world bring to the party.

The show opens with a smiling Nina Simone waving to us from the side of the stage as if she is our best friend. She encourages us to clap along to her classic ‘Revolution’ as she takes us back to her 1967 Harlem concert. The house lights are left up, we can see her and she can see us. It feels like we are in for a comfortable tribute show.

Then the mood changes dramatically as the ‘Me’ as in ‘Nina and Me’ calls the show to a stop and gives a four- letter- word rant about how nothing has really changed in racial discrimination over the years and how we are all culpable.

When Josette unrelentingly acts out how a white policeman pumped 16 bullets in ten and a half seconds into a 17-year-old black boy, we start to feel uncomfortable- very uncomfortable – wishing the house lights to go out and let us hide from her.

Her rant becomes not just about America but international, as she reels off injustices from racial and racist murders around the globe.

She grudgingly sings a few more bars from a few more songs as ‘That’s what we’re here to hear’ – the house lights mercifully go down as she calls for the images of Nina Simone to appear on the bead screen dividing upstage from downstage.

The pop pictures change to black and white newsreel footage of more racial injustice.

She stops singing and rants; the house lights go up again revealing our hiding places. She calmly tells whom in the audience she would let live and who should die. It’s then you realise that the ‘me’ in ‘Nina and Me’ is not one person but a whole collection of black women throughout the ages all rolled into one and all asking us awkward questions.

“It’s not our fault you were made slaves all those years ago” we want to tell her.

This is a show of two halves without an interval – the second half is where Josette sings and performs Nina Simone as Nina Simone or rather as she says ‘her understudy’. No more talking – just one great number after another. She builds the concert to fever pitch and we end on our feet screaming for more.

All credit to Josette Bushell-Mingo not just for an Olivier worthy performance but for coming up with the original concept, and devising it along with Dritero Kasapi (who also directed), There is outstanding musical direction by Shapor Bastansiar and a stunning lighting design by Matt Haskins.

Nina Simone died in 2003 but it seems the revolution she nurtured still continues whilst her music undoubtedly endures. Be prepared this is not an easy piece of theatre but it will have you discussing it for days afterwards.

Review by Euan Rose

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