Nina: A Story About me and Nina Simone – The Lowry, Salford
Concept: Josette Bushell-Mingo
Director: Dritëro Kasapi
Reviewer Matthew Forrest
I’m still picking my jaw up off the floor following some blistering tunes from the Nina Simone song-book, courtesy of the uber-talented singing powerhouse Josette Bushell-Mingo. She absolutely nails versions of Sinnerman, I wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free and Revolution. However, it’s a long road before we get to this point: a journey full of anger and with a hint of humour.
Anyone attending Nina – A story About me and Nina Simone expecting a straight up tribute show had better think again: for this is a show packed full of fire and fury, part theatre, part spoken word, and part concert. Bushell-Mingo arrives on stage backed by a three-piece band, where she begins to paint a picture of a civil rights rally in Harlem during the early 60’s. Simone is ready to perform the aforementioned ‘Revolution’but Bushell-Mingo isn’t: she begins to recite a list of dates and events in which black people were being persecuted and murdered: they include Martin Luther King Jr, Steve Biko, Stephen Lawrence and Laquan McDonald, an unarmed teenager shot 16 times by a police officer in Chicago. She stamps her foot to represent the sound of the gunfire; it’s simple but certainly a hard-hitting and powerful message, it’s deeply unsettling but makes for captivating theatre.
Bushell-Mingo later draws parallels between her own life and that of Simone’s with themes of forgiveness, tolerance and grief explored. A story about the death of her mother and the rallying support of the local community provides a spot of light relief. In addition, she tells stories from Simone’s past including her first public performance at an all-white church, where she witnesses first-hand the discrimination of black people. In this case, her parents. This is punctured with snippets of songs including Little Girl Blue and O Come O Come Emmanuel masterfully performed by Bushell-Mingo and her backing band, as well as clips of Simone and various anti-black atrocities that blight our history. This culminates in a concert which provides a feel-good moment for all concerned but doesn’t detract from the shows powerful and message.
This is a production with a great deal to say about tolerance and prejudice, and quite alarmingly for us all says a great deal about the state of the world today. You only need to look at the passion of Bushell-Mingo to see exactly what this means to her. Some would consider it foolish to attempt a straight up Simone impression which thankfully Bushel-Mingo avoids, putting her own stamp on the chosen songs. She is supported by a band of fantastic musicians in Shaney Forbes (drums), Shapor Bastansiar (piano) and Neville Malcom (bass). They most certainly look and sound the part, and for my money, any production is improved by a double bass. The visuals and imagery used are powerful and if they are intended to leave a lasting impression they certainly do so. The stage set out is like a jazz club also adds another dimension to proceedings.
The show does have its flaws: the pacing is a little off, it seems a little stop-start, in addition, the audience are made to feel slightly on edge by not just the subject matter but the direct accusations and assertions that they are to blame with what has happened. It leaves a slightly uneasy feeling and a bitter taste in the mouth.
This undoubtedly is Bushell-Mingo’s show, a labour of love filled with raw emotion and energy that will leave you shocked, uncomfortable but ultimately sends you home with a smile on your face. It may not change the world but will certainly inspire debate and conversation and that can only be a good thing.