‘Production company Seabright is just one of many to benefit from a grant from the Cultural Recovery Fund which has then been used to give work to a number of otherwise dispossessed actors and creatives. The outcome is recordings of four already feted plays which were mounted in Wilton’s Music Hall in the east end of London in June, playing before socially distanced audiences. And they are now being made available on gradual release throughout this month on stream.theatre. A Super Happy Story (About Feeling Super Sad) was the first of these and now the second, Black Is The Color Of My Voice, joins it.
This new/old play first appeared in Edinburgh in 2014 and has enjoyed success not only in the UK (including runs at the Vaults Festival and at the Trafalgar Studios) in the intervening years but has also travelled to New York and Shanghai. It’s a solo show both written and performed by Apphia Campbell and is heavily based on the life of the legendary Nina Simone – although this is never openly acknowledged in the text.
The central character here is Eugenia, or Gena for short, who finds she has the gift of music at the tender age of three and devotes most the rest of her life to it. Her devout mother is fine with that as long as she’s using her talent to glorify God through hymns and religious songs but when her daughter turns to “the devil’s music” (basically anything else) they do not see eye to eye. Gena becomes Mena Bordeaux, has a disastrous relationship with Arthur who abuses her and becomes increasingly involved in the American Civil Rights movement. Her one constant is her relationship with her father on whom she dotes.
But he has died, and it is this which forms the framework to the narrative as the singer shuts herself away in her room to literally go through a trunk full of memories and try to come to terms with his passing. The piece therefore becomes a confessional to his photograph and, by extension, us. In that sense it is standard biographical drama (even if presented as fiction). What makes it stand out from the crowd is Campbell’s performance which is multi-layered, dynamic and assured and, when she’s singing, spine-tingling.
Most of the songs are standards from Simone’s repertoire and are used to make strong emotional points rather than just being fillers. They are often truncated; this is a wise move as it thankfully stops the piece sliding into jukebox musical territory and those that are sung a cappella, as in the song from which the play’s title is drawn, have a particular capacity to move the listener. Although the ostensible setting is the singer’s room, Clancy Flynn’s evocative lighting takes us to other locations and is used to set mood and tone enhancing the text. There are two credited directors (Arran Hawkins and Nate Jacobs), but I’d be surprised if Campbell, like her point of inspiration, hasn’t made many of her own decisions.
To be honest I couldn’t really see the reason why Simone’s story has been slightly fictionalised in this way; the distance between Gena/Mena/Nina is negligible and I would say that it is important to recognise that these are events and circumstances which surrounded a real person’s life. In no way, though, does it detract from the power of the writing or the performance which deservedly gets a standing ovation from the necessarily limited audience. If you want to see the play live it is back at Wilton’s in early August for a few performances and, by then, we are promised things will be (almost) back to normal. If you’re still in not in going out mode the play streams for a further ten days – catch it if you can.