Touring – reviewed at The Lowry, Salford Quays
Guest reviewer: Daniel Shipman
Nina – A Story About Me and Nina Simone is not a tribute concert or a jukebox musical based on Simone’s songs. It is a powerful and totally contemporary take on racial politics, which utilises the potent political element in Simone’s music that you may not have even noticed was there. The show is effectively an 80-minute monologue, interspersed with songs. As the title suggests, it is intensely personal and could not be performed by anyone else
From the moment Josette Bushell-Mingo coolly strolls on to the stage while the house lights are still up, it is clear that you are about to witness a masterclass in audience engagement. Before a word is spoken or a note is played, Bushell-Mingo’s casually confident demeanour has the audience on her side.
While this is an extraordinary feat, it is also totally necessary for this piece to work. The first few lines set the scene of a Nina Simone concert in 1969 and the audience responds to each line with applause and cheers like the crowd at a concert would.
The stage is set up simply, as if for a concert – there is a double bass (played by Neville Malcolm), drums (Shaney Forbes) and a piano (Shapor Bastansiar) all in front of a large curtain which doubles as a screen for projections.
In the final number, the band members are named one-by-one and receive rapturous applause. It is thoroughly deserved, they provide the perfect musical backing to some of the finest moments in the show, with Bushell-Mingo twirling enchanting shapes around the stage as if channelling the spirit of Nina Simone herself.
Despite the heavy politics of the evening, and the message that very little has changed in terms of society’s inherent racism in the decades since Simone’s protest songs were first written and sung, the show mainly stays surprisingly light. The only exception to occurs roughly halfway through, following an archive clip of Simone saying she wishes she could take up a gun against the racists of the southern states. Even in this, a grim subject covered in a simple yet very powerful way, Bushell-Mingo continually appeals to the audience, asking them ‘stay with me’.
It works. The performers and audience come out the other side feeling as though they have truly experienced a transformation together. And at the final bows, the multiple standing ovations and shouts of ‘more!’ show just how much the audience enjoyed it.