Written back in 2013, and performed across the country ever since, Black is the Colour of My Voice has been honed to a fine show, nothing short of perfection. Writer and performer of this one-woman masterpiece, Apphia Campbell delivers a mesmerising performance in the role of Mena Bordeaux, a pseudonym used to represent the legendary jazz musician and activist Nina Simone, whose life-story unfurls in this hour-long adaptation.
We first encounter Mena attempting to undertake a period of ambiguous spiritual cleansing whilst locked away in a small bedroom, perfectly curated with a minimal, dimly lit staging. From this immersive perspective, Campbell confidently guides us on an emotional walk through the defining moments of Simone’s life and career. In speech directed primarily towards the spirit of her late father, she recalls these memories as being tied intricately to her music, which is brought to life as Campbell powerfully channels many of these moments through the songs which made and defined Simone’s trajectory as one of the most iconic voices of 20th Century America.
The lighting and sound design, led by Clancy Flynn and Tom Lishman respectively, bring these moments to life in high definition, as they create landscapes which reach far beyond the small room shown on stage. For instance, the early portrayal of her first piano recital is brought effortlessly to life, through a simple, globed lighting and an impressive soundscape of the recital. It is in this scene that Mena is depicted as becoming directly aware of the racism affecting her life, as her parents are forced to the back of the Church Hall. We then watch as she battles against racially provoked rejection from music schools, leading her to become a resident performer at an inner-city nightclub, much to the horror of her strongly religious mother. Against the joy of her first experiences of love, the development of her musicality and life in the city, we’re also let into the violence shown by an early partner – a brutal, evocatively performed scene, which is followed by an hauntingly emotive A Cappella performance of Black is the Color (of My True Love’s Hair).
In spite of these heavy agonies, the show is not short of humour, such as through Campbell’s hilarious impression of Mena’s mother, walking down the street in full-preacher mode, or declaring her three-year-old child a musical prodigy gifted by the gods. In its final scenes, the show starts to shift against the rising backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement, which once more comes to force through impressive sound and light engineering portraying the switching of television channels through key scenes of the movement. Showing the fire-fuelled creation of Mississippi Goddam, we see a timely portrayal of the making of a Civil Rights activist.
As she left the stage, following a phenomenal final song performed with a powerful reserve of energy, Campbell reached for the mic, only to announce, “that’s all, I have no more to say”. And that alone sums up the impact of this show; it simply leaves nothing else to say.
Black is The Colour of My Voice is performing at Pleasance at EICC – Cromdale Theatre from August 6th-9th, 11th-16th, 18th-20th at 15:00.
Image: Peter Dibdin, provided to The Student as press material.