Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Theatre review: Nina - a story about me and Nina Simone

Josette Bushell-Mingo and Dritëro Kasapi’s extraordinarily angry piece Nina – a story about me and Nina Simone is closer to performance art than theatre: Bushell-Mingo starts the show in an afro wig, describing the jubilant atmosphere leading up to a Nina Simone concert in 1969, and the suggestion is that she’s going to impersonate Simone and perform some of the songs from that set. But this is more about Nina Simone the activist than the performer, and having barely started the first song Bushell-Mingo finds she can’t carry on, because the inequality Simone was fighting against back then is still present today – Simone wrote a song called "Mississippi Goddam" and Bushell-Mingo is all too aware that with anti-black violence continuing to be disproportionate to this day, the song could just as easily be renamed “Ferguson Goddam.”

What follows is a very loosely-linked collection of recollections, from her mother’s death – where she found more comfort from a group of Jamaican women she didn’t know, than from the white church she’d been going to all her life – to her first time seeing Simone on a TV special and feeling a kinship with her.

Underlying all her stories of her own life and Simone’s is the absolute rage that there’s even still a need for a movement like “Black Lives Matter” in 2017, culminating in a violent fantasy where she imagines herself going on a killing spree and shooting all the white people in the audience, taking the time to find every non-white face and tell them they’d be spared. It’s effective and deliberately uncomfortable but heavy-handed and I really wasn’t sure what to make of this show by its half-way point. You might imagine a show about Bushell-Mingo’s life and Nina Simone would be interspersed with the latter’s songs, along the lines of Lady Day, but in this schizophrenic evening all the fury comes first, before the second half turns into a mini-concert.

But in this second half the structure of the show became clearer to me, that schizophrenic nature is the point: That the actor, and by extension Nina Simone as she imagines her, can have this chaos of righteous anger going on underneath a performance, and feed into it even if it’s not obvious that’s the fuel. The way she channels the rage into the art is probably best exemplified by the fact that “Feeling Good” turns up twice, the first time bitterly ironic and the second time much more genuinely optimistic and empowered. The messiness of the way the pieces fit together remains a niggling problem for the side of me that likes a bit more structure but ultimately Nina works.

Nina – a story about me and Nina Simone by Josette Bushell-Mingo and Dritëro Kasapi is booking until the 29th of July; then from the 5th to the 13th of August at the Traverse, Edinburgh.

Running time: 1 hour 25 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Simon Annand.

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