If you sat waiting for Nina – A Story About Me and Nina Simone to begin, perhaps comfortably looking forward to an easy evening tumbling through Nina Simone’s extensive body of work, you’d be in for a real shock. Whilst Josette Bushell-Mingo does perform a number of classic Nina Simone tracks – from “Sinnerman” to “Mississippi Goddam” – and does so accompanied by personal anecdote, the show is much more than just a tribute act. Simone may hold titular precedence, but she is the show’s backdrop against which Bushell-Mingo explores her experiences of growing up a black girl in Lewisham as well as what it means to be a black woman today, fulfilling the show’s tagline: a story about me and Nina Simone. Matthew Linley, producer, described the show most succinctly as being “part theatre, part concert, part gospel and part spoken word”.
Josette Bushell-Mingo earnt her OBE in 2006, after a long and varied career in theatre beginning with her performance of Solveig in a production of Peer Gynt at the Royal Exchange, Manchester. Having been nominated for an Olivier Award for Best Actress in 2000 for her performance as Rafiki in the Lion King, Bushell-Mingo went onto to establish and be artistic director of PUSH, a black-led arts festival that aims at promoting and developing Black British theatre. Bushell-Mingo is now the artistic director for The Swedish National Touring Tyst Teater ensemble, living there with her two sons and husband. She has now returned to the UK to bring us Nina. Her other credits in directing, choreography, and film, television and theatre acting are too extensive to be published here but can be found at www.josette.click.
Aside from the very beginning of the show, when she re-enacts Simone’s “Revolution” famously performed at the 1969 Harlem cultural festival, Bushell-Mingo does not purport to be anyone but herself, albeit an amplified version of herself. And even then, she breaks the fourth wall, dragging the audience into her own revolution. She discusses the Black Lives Matter movement and ridicules the very need for it, “How did we come to a time when we have to say Black Lives Matter?”.
It is as early as the first few minutes that Bushell-Mingo removes the façade that this is going to be comfortable viewing, interrupting her first performance as Nina to consider the murder of Laquan Mcdonald, shot by a police officer 16 times in 13 seconds. He was unarmed and 17 years old, the same age as Bushell-Mingo’s oldest son. She provocatively invites the audience to consider this, and the enduring legacy of racism in Simone’s America and Bushell-Mingo’s own Europe. No mean feat when you come to realise that the Exeter Northcott audience is made up almost exclusively of middle aged white people. Indeed, at the apex of her unabashed rage, Bushell-Mingo scours the audience to find someone who looks like her, locating just two who she reaches out to: “You would be saved, because you look like me.” Dritëro Kasapi must be given props for his direction of these moments, for the layered silences between the questions as much as the questions themselves.
Physically, Bushell-Mingo is a great representation of Nina Simone. Sporting an afro wig and bejewelled nose ring à la Simone, she transports the audience back to a summer day in 1969. “It was 38 degrees in the shade!”, and the temperature never drops in the room. Bushell-Mingo’s dancing, so like Simone’s, could be an act in itself when accompanied by the band. Shapor Bastansiar, musical director and piano, was present at the show’s inception and has been on stage for every performance ever since. Bastansiar gives Nina a different atmosphere to its lead: lending soft, spine-tingling compositions in the tensest moments that offer a subtly discordant register, albeit one that elevates the feelings of anguish played out by Bushell-Mingo. Bastansiar is supported by Shaney Forbes on drums and Neville Malcolm on bass.
With a minimal set and lighting design that flip-flops between atmospheric, focussed spotlight and houselights that illuminate the audience, the energy of the performance is the complete product of Josette Bushell-Mingo’s captivating style of storytelling. Although some elements of the play are hard to stomach, Nina certainly delivers an hour and a half of passionate interrogation of factors involved in the oppression and demonization of black people. Bushell-Mingo as Nina laments, “I wish I knew how it would feel to be free.”
– Emily Earp
Featured image source.