Review: Black is the Color of My Voice (Tour)

Monday 26th September 2022 at the Grand Theatre and Opera House, York.


Written and performed by Apphia Campbell, Black is the Color of My Voice reflects on the life of the iconic Nina Simone: distinctive vocalist with a powerful, expressive voice; passionate and gifted pianist; voice of the Civil Rights Movement.

Under the pseudonym of Mena Bordeaux, and merely seeking to “conjure Nina Simone’s spirit, giving the audience a window into her world – without the expectation of impersonation”, Campbell’s performance is given free rein to explore Simone’s extraordinary life with her own vocal stylings and tender touches across the script.

Under direction of Aaron Hawkins and Nate Jacobs, we see lost love playfully reminisced, a developing affinity with classical music endearingly gushed over and misplaced trust leading to a life taken in an unanticipated direction. Campbell covers ground quickly, reminding us that Simone started playing the piano at age 3 in the 1930s and didn’t have the privilege of being an innocent, care-free young girl when the world and its cruelties muscled their way into her life very early on.

The basics of Simone’s history are well documented, but Campbell breathes life into the facts we can all readily find. As the young girl behind that story of defiance at a piano recital, she is adorably bashful but strong and fiercely protective of her parents. As an adult, she is driven but also vulnerable when she follows her heart rather than her head. The wider world becomes her focus when we see a vision of a moved, enraged Simone take to songwriting as she tries to process horrifying news.

At intervals, Campbell seamlessly shifts the dynamic by channeling Simone’s mother with a knowing twinkle, making us laugh with her wisdoms and chastisements. But the play also passionately brings the wounds of racism and injustice centre stage through monologues which demand the audience sit up straighter and take note. Simone tells us that when homes of Black Panther members were raided, “the first thing they took were my records!” It’s a stark reminder of how pivotal she was and how she bravely navigated an extremely dangerous time.

Songs (sound design: Joseph Degnan) punctuate the memories but they never dominate; a moving rendition of Mississippi Goddam guides us to the next chapter: Simone as a galvanising melodic voice of the Civil Rights Movement. Young, Gifted and Black illustrates how she became that voice. Campbell sings with the same force and passion as Simone, but she sings in her own voice, with never a whisper of contrived impersonation. And it’s a beautiful voice, too – capable of sending shivers down four limbs at once. But there are definitely moments when Campbell absolutely does echo the distinct intonations and speech patterns of Simone, particularly when a fuse has been lit, and it only serves to reinforce what a force of nature Nina Simone was.

Black is the Color of My Voice spotlights the highs and lows of an incredible woman’s life, and Campbell showcases great talent as both writer and performer. The play reminds us of the hardships and injustice Nina Simone endured but takes care to close on a joyful image as it celebrates her legacy – well worth a trip.

Black is the Color of My Voice tours until November 24th 2022 – you can find more information and tickets here.

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