Nina is an outstanding one-woman show we saw this week at the Unity Theatre in Liverpool. It is a deeply personal tribute to Nina Simone by Josette Bushell-Mingo, the London-born actress and singer who is currently artistic director for the Swedish National Touring Theatre. As its full title – Nina – a story about me and Nina Simone – implies, and as became apparent minutes into this remarkable production, this is a personal meditation, laced with anger and bitterness, on the meaning of Simone’s music for another black woman. The show runs for another week and should not be missed.
It is no routine tribute to a great musician which Josette Bushell-Mingo has crafted; her concern is not with the detail of Simone’s life and career, nor to present a showcase of the musician’s greatest hits. Rather, Josette channels Nina in an angry, shape-shifting performance that switches back and forth between Simone’s response to the pressures of racism in America and the significance of her music and political activism in Bushell-Mingo’s own life.
On a simple but effective set, Bushell-Mingo takes the stage flanked by three musicians – Shapor Bastansiar (piano), Marque Gilmore (drums) and Jair-Rohm Parker Wells (bass) – who provide excellent backing throughout the show. The director, Dritëro Kasapi, uses little more stage design than a dramatically-lit tasselled curtain drawn across the upstage area. At times this allowed for the back projection of still or moving images, while at other times it was illuminated to reveal a scene shimmering beyond, or drawn back to create a deeper sense of space in the intimate confines of the Unity.
It very quickly became clear that Bushell-Mingo was not in the business of fronting a tribute band working through the repertoire of her favourite singer, nor would she delve into the troubled turbulence of Simone’s private life, but would remain focussed on her significance as a political activist, a musician whose songs and performances served as a lightning rod for the social divisions of her time.
She began by evoking the scene, in August 1969, when Simone performed her song ‘Revolution’ before a huge and happy outdoor crowd at the New York Harlem Renaissance Festival. Bushell-Mingo painted for us a picture of proud and determined people: young men and women sporting afros, families from grandparents to little kids, bright clothes, good vibes, the Black Panthers providing the security.
I had to look this up when I got back home. What I found was that Bushell-Mingo was evoking ‘Black Woodstock‘ which took place at the same time as the better-known hippie namesake was taking place in upstate New York. But this celebration of African American music, designed to promote black pride and unity in the aftermath of the despair and riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy the previous year. The Harlem Renaissance concerts featured the best black musicians of the time. But, despite being filmed and featuring such luminaries as Stevie Wonder, BB King, Sly & the Family Stone, Hugh Masakela – and Nina Simone – footage of the event has never been released.
From describing the scene Josette Bushell-Mingo launches into the key song which Simone sang at the Festival. ‘Revolution’ provides Bushell-Mingo’s keynote: the promise of the civil rights movement and the demand for Black Power that sprang from it; and the question begged by the continuing part of racism, inequality and repression in the United States:
And now we got a revolution
Because I see the face of things to come
Yeah, your Constitution
Well, my friend, it’s gonna have to bend
I’m here to tell you about destruction
Of all the evil that will have to end.
Some folks are gonna get the notion
I know they’ll say I’m preachin’ hate
But if I have to swim the ocean –
Well I will, just to communicate –
It’s not as simple as talkin’ jive
The daily struggle just to stay alive
Singin’ about a revolution
Because were talkin’ about a change
It’s more than just evolution
Well you know you got to clean your brain
The only way that we can stand in fact
Is when you get your foot off our back.
Halfway into the song Bushell-Mingo breaks off to bring us all brutally up to date. She speaks of the Black Lives Matter movement that has spread across America in the last four years in response to violence and systemic racism directed towards black people, including the succession of deaths at the hands of police. It was one of those deaths about which Bushell-Mingo chose to speak.
Laquan McDonald was a black 17-year-old who in Chicago in 2014 was shot 16 times by a police officer – in the space of 13.5 seconds, she emphasised. Josette stamped the floor five times to replicate the gunshots, then stamped a further five times before stating that there would still be six bullets left to fire. It was a powerful demonstration of both the brutality of the act and the excessive use of force. Josette’s point is that the journey to the Promised Land which Martin Luther King foresaw in his last speech is far from reaching its destination, while the promise of revolution for the oppressed black citizens of America which Simone invokes in her song reveals a paradox: the root meaning of the word suggests coming full circle and ending up back where you started.
Demonstrating how events in Simone’s life are intertwined with Bushell-Mingo’s own experiences, she describes seeing The Black and White Minstrel Show on TV as a child things as a child, in which black people were depicted by black-face white performers as ‘happy dumb Negroes.’ But it was also on TV that as a little girl Josette saw Nina, and ‘Nina saw me and spoke to me’.
Sit there and count the raindrops
Falling on you
It’s time you knew
All you can ever count on
Are the raindrops
That fall on little girl blue
Then she tells the story of Simone’s concert debut. The sixth of eight children in a poor family, Nina began playing piano when she was three years old. Recognised as a child prodigy, by twelve years old she was set to give a recital of classical music at a local church with a white congregation. Seeing her parents, who had taken seats in the front row, being forced to move to the back of the hall to make way for white people, she refused to play unless her parents (who had not resisted) were moved back to the front. They were and the concert began.
In later life, Simone wrote that the incident contributed to her involvement in the civil rights movement, that her whole world changed in that moment. Nothing was easy anymore. Racism became real for her ‘like the turning on of a light.’
Here, Josette sang one of Nina’s most famous songs, one that expressed her anger about the treatment of black people in America and specifically her response to the murder of Medgar Evers in June 1963 and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four young black girls in September 1963. As Josette observed, the title alone was considered profane in the mid-sixties. For Nina, the song was, ‘like throwing ten bullets back at them.’
The name of this tune is Mississippi Goddam
And I mean every word of it […]
Lord have mercy on this land of mine
We all gonna get it in due time
I don’t belong here
I don’t belong there
I’ve even stopped believing in prayer
Don’t tell me
I tell you
Me and my people just about due
I’ve been there so I know
They keep on saying ‘Go slow!’ […]
Oh but this whole country is full of lies
You’re all gonna die and die like flies
I don’t trust you any more
You keep on saying ‘Go slow!’
‘Go slow!’ […]
You don’t have to live next to me
Just give me my equality
Everybody knows about Mississippi
Everybody knows about Alabama
Everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam
Mississippi Goddam performed by Nina Simone
Feel the grief, the fear, the anger and the frustration as an audience of white folks watch her give a truly magnificent performance of her cry of rage. Unknown time and place and Hungarian subtitles.
Another instance of the way in which Bushell-Mingo connects events in Nina’s life and her own comes with a beautifully-delivered sequence in which she recalls how, following the death of her mother a few years ago, she answered her door to a group of women, friends from her mother’s church, who had come to sit with her and comfort her. Josette’s description of their night of tears and laughter was a joyous high point of the evening.
So: how much, or how little, has changed? Why, asks Josette, is it still necessary, a century and a half after the abolition of slavery and fifty years on from the civil rights movement, to assert that Black Lives Matter?
Lyn Gardner, in her laudatory review of the show for the Guardian, noted how ‘potent and thoughtful’ it is, offering up the songs and moments from both these women’s lives and making connections between then and now.
It asks questions about how you can use your voice to start a revolution, whether forgiveness is always a good thing, what level of threat constitutes self-defence and if violence is ever the right course of action. ‘How did we come to a time when we have to say Black Lives Matter?’ she ponders, stamping her feet, each stamp counting out the number of seconds it took for a police officer to shoot the unarmed black Chicago teenager Laquan McDonald 16 times.
Nina Simone became so frustrated with the pattern of racist violence in her time, and the way that her support for the civil rights movement led to her records being boycotted by white radio stations that she came to support the Black Panther call for armed revolution to create a separate black state in the USA. Bushell-Mingo taps into this non-violent spirit in a section of the show which many white audience members might find discomfiting. It is meant to be.
Projected images of radical black activists culminate with Nina Simone’s assertion ‘If I had my way I’d have been a killer. I would’ve gone to the South and gave them violence for violence, shotgun for shotgun’ (a statement from her autobiography which expressed her feelings when black men and women were being murdered in the South.
It was at this point that Bushell-Mingo asked for the house lights to be raised. She asked the audience to imagine her walking into this Liverpool theatre, armed with a gun. Pointing at the few members of the audience who were black, she said she would allow them to go free, while the rest of us, she said, she would kill. She went on to imagine her own husband and her three children being brought in to dissuade her from her purpose.
Just when it seems that Bushell-Mingo can’t continue, she waves to the musicians and concludes the show with a sequence of terrific performances of some of Simone’s finest compositions: ‘I Got Life’, ‘Sinnerman’, ‘Four Women’, ‘I Loves You, Porgy’, and – bringing everything full circle – ‘Revolution’.
At the close, the three musicians took a well-deserved bow. But the biggest acclaim was for Josette Bushell-Mingo – for this was her show, outstanding in respect of her script, her acting, and her singing. Full respect indeed.
When Nina Simone died, the Guardian obituary included this:
Simone’s music was about love and respect – and their opposites, particularly in relation to race. She often seemed to be considering these matters afresh in the course of a performance, and to be confronting the pleasure and distress of life so close to the edge of a parapet that an audience hung on her every move, uncertain as to whether or not she would fall off. Sometimes she did, but mostly she didn’t, unleashing performances of reckless, blazing dignity that resembled those of no other singer-pianist in the business.
Josette Bushell-Mingo brought all of those characteristics to this performance. In ‘I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free’, Nina sang:
I wish I could share
All the love that’s in my heart
Remove all the bars
That keep us apart
I wish you could know
What it means to be me
Then you’d see and agree
That every man should be free
Josette gave us a woman, inspired by Nina, and still seeking answers to the questions that burned in Nina Simone’s heart.
Nina Simone performs ‘Revolution’ at the Harlem Renaissance Festival on 17 August 1969
Footnote: there are two creditable documentaries about Nina Simone: Nina Simone: La légende was made in France the 1990s, while What Happened, Miss Simone? directed by Liz Garbus was released in 2015. The biopic Nina, released this year, received overwhelmingly negative reviews and should be avoided.
Nina Simone: La légende
What Happened, Miss Simone?
- Nina review: searing tribute restarts Simone’s revolution (Guardian)
- Nina Simone: obituary (Guardian)