One of this season’s most exciting guests plays for one night only at Twickenham’s Exchange, in what is a monodrama written by starring Apphia Campbell as jazz legend Nina Simone. There is no mentioning of this being a musical but you cannot tell any musician’s story without their music.
Nina has locked herself in a room for three full days, a hotel room most likely, denying herself any alcohol, cigarettes or other excess – she wants to reconnect with her late father. His photo in a frame on a chair, she explains and admits and confesses her life out of a suitcase as if her whole life was a piece of luggage filled with emotions.
Beginning with childhood memories she remembers her mother who she owes her love for gospel and her piano teacher who she owes her love for Johann Sebastian Bach. Classical music taught her discipline, she claims but then came blues and jazz, too tempting to resist – even when damned by her mama as devil’s music. Being a girl growing up in a country harshly separated by race and being denied access to further academical musical studies, she learns quickly that the devil comes to you when you are at your weakest.
It is at this stage of her life when she turns from Eugenia, the coloured wunderkind on the piano (as people like to promote her) to Nina who finds purpose in the Black Panther movement and dedicates almost all her music to. We hear a radio collage of news footage quoting John F. Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King and their radical oppositions who are shockingly giving free distribution of opinion.
While Nina becomes proudly the voice of social uprising, she is falling out with her father over marrying the wrong man. For the first time she is now telling her father the whole terrible story of abuse, how this man broke her will and planted an unknown fear into her which will stay with her the rest of her life. Not long after King gets shot and Nina refuses to understand how after his death – another political assassination – the whole movement crumbles away instead of further unity.
This 70 minute one-woman-show deserves every standing ovation it receives tonight.
Visiting Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club revived my interest in Nina Simone; after all it is here where she recorded her probably most famous of over 40 albums. Her songs are the soundtrack of personal empowerment of everyone nowadays (and of perfume adverts). Shortly afterwards I watched the film Nina in which Simone is being portrayed by Zoe Saldana as a self-destructive diva full of anger and aggression – not someone you’d wish to share a table with. It’s not for me to claim how fictitious the film is but I feel tonight I learned a lot about the way leading to this extreme behaviour. And Twickenham can think itself very lucky to have a venue hosting Friday night gems like this – happy first birthday!
**** out of 5 stars
Apphia Campbell’s tour of Black Is The Color Of My Voice, directed by Arran Hawkins, continues in summer 2021