I used to like Nina Simone. I liked her a lot and there was a time when Nina Simone at Town Hall was rarely off my turntable. To me, and many others, this 1959 recording was the definitive album by an artist who was respected by and influenced many of the artists that went on to rock and pop greatness. But in the early sixties she became, not surprisingly, involved in the Civil Rights movement and she became distracted, her songs becoming overtly politicised – although her heart-rending 1965 version of the old Billie Holliday song Strange Fruit perfectly encapsulated Simone’s musical genius as well as her political/social commitment.
In her play Black is the Color of My Voice Apphia Campbell takes us, in a parallel universe, through the life of Mena Bordeaux who, like Nina Simone, was a child prodigy, destined to become the first black American concert pianist. But this was Tryon, North Carolina in the 1930s and 40s and things like that just didn’t happen.
Ms Campbell’s play is a monologue addressed to Mena/Nina’s long-dead beloved father whose framed photograph sits on a chair in the lonely hotel/dressing room. She has with her a suitcase full of mementos which she skilfully uses to paint a picture of an artist whose story was, I suspect, not unique in the racist southern states of America until relatively recently.
We learn how the three-year-old Eunice Kathleen Waymon, Simone’s real name, learned to play piano, loved Bach and was ordained for greatness. But it was not to be. After her parents were ejected from her first concert for being black and she was turned down by the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia for the same reason, the young musician changed tack and started singing jazz and blues in sleazy bars, changing her name so that her mother would not know she was playing “the devil’s music”.
We follow Mena/Nina through her trials and tribulations – losing the love of her life and eventually marrying a man who had raped and beaten her, the premature death of her father and much more. With the emergence of the Civil Rights movement in the early 1960s she discovered her raison d’être, throwing her weight and artistry wholeheartedly behind the cause and aligning herself firmly with Martin Luther King.
The Shanghai-based American Ms Campbell is an outstanding, mesmerising performer, writer and, we now discover, a fine singer as well. In her play, with the aid of quite a few songs, she tells the story, not only of one of the great musical artists of the 20th century but of the burden of being black in a society that is happy to accommodate and accept the talent, but not the person, of someone who is young, gifted and black. Michael Hasted 23rd November 2019