A Story About Me And Nina Simone
Young Vic Theatre Summer 2017
This is a show built on indirection, appearing to be about one thing while actually about another, and ultimately saying something very different from what it pretends to be saying.
Nina Simone (1933-2003) was a black American blues and jazz singer and civil rights activist. Josette Bushell-Mingo is a black actress born in London, who considers Simone her artistic and political inspiration.
Nina begins as a celebration of Simone, evoking the excitement of a 1969 open air concert in Harlem and recounting how Simone recordings helped Bushell-Mingo through some emotional crises in her life.
But then it abruptly changes tack, as Bushell-Mingo drops Simone to present herself as nearly incoherent with rage at unceasing racism today, reaching a climax as she imagines herself murdering every white person in the present audience.
Only after having burned through that does she return to Simone, whose music is now a calming and pacifying influence on her.
Of course the murderous rage is an act, based though it may very well be on actual feelings, and one problem with the show is that it's not a very convincing one.
As a performer, Bushell-Mingo is too controlled and too limited in range to generate any sense of real danger. We're told she's angry, but not really shown it.
But that is in keeping with the mode of the whole script (devised by Bushell-Mingo and director Dritero Kasapi). We are told Nina Simone was an important force in the American Civil Rights movement of the 1960s but given no evidence.
We are told she was an inspiration to the young Bushell-Mingo, but not shown how. This show doesn't have a great deal to say, but it just says it all rather than dramatising it.
Which leaves us with the musical tribute. Bushell-Mingo sings eight or nine songs as Simone, ranging from Simone's own composition Mississippi Goddam through covers of I Loves You Porgy, Feeling Good, I Got Life and Little Girl Blue.
(Bushell-Mingo cannot have missed, but does not comment on the irony that most of Simone's repertoire was by white writers and composers.)
Bushell-Mingo sings attractively, but not particularly in Simone's style, tending more toward belting than the original's more laid-back and understated style, and with no hint of the jazz singer's toying with rhythms or lyrics.
So what we get is a talented and attractive performer simply telling us that another performer influenced her, and singing some songs associated with Simone but not in real imitation of her style.
That probably isn't what you came in expecting, and it probably won't be fully satisfying.
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Review - Nina - Young Vic Theatre 2017