Apphia Campbell’s Black is the Color of My Voice goes far beyond a Nina Simone impersonation. There’s much to take from this piece, especially if you’ve gone in expecting a casual toe tap. Throughout we’re presented with what it means to be truly free, to live fully, and to exist in a society determined to classify your worth by your skin colour. This may be a story of the Sixties but it echoes painfully into the now. Let’s face it – while we think we see progress, we’re only a stone’s throw ahead.
The piece defiantly refuses to utter the words “Nina Simone”. This gives the actor the space to explore their interpretation without the weight of a straight impersonation. Instead, we’re presented with a character whose story holds up a prescient mirror to the songstress. The budding classical pianist turned jazz siren becomes the voice of the Civil Rights Movement. We meet Mena Bordeaux on a three-day mission to cleanse herself of alcohol and cigarettes after the unexpected death of her beloved father. She is convinced that like Noah’s residence inside a whale or Lazarus’s death sentence, she’ll come out reformed and ‘good’. Throughout her isolation, she shares her journey of dealing with grief and attempts to undo the childhood guilt of imposed morality.
Black is the Color of my Voice appears as a one woman show. However, Campbell’s Mena is never alone. The voices of her past are ever present, in both a practical and metaphorical sense. We see the embodiment of her pious parents with costume, her lover through his written love letters and a march approaching through a soundscape and moment in the audience. There’s a real awareness of her lack of solitude, even despite her great efforts to isolate herself. The voices of her past haunt the piece and she is only granted freedom through song. Making the use of musical punctuation not only a clever theatrical device and a show of Campbell’s great vocal talent but a gut-wrenching reminder of Simone’s lack of emotional autonomy.
Accompanying the story of a grieving daughter, we witness what it means to learn about racism through lived experience. Young Mena learns about segregation when her parents are wrenched from the front row of her first piano recital to make space for white audience members. Simplistically, this prompts a lifelong desire to change the narrative. This results in her taking an active part in fighting for change. An extremely powerful moment within the piece occurs when she relives receiving the news of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church resulting in the death of four black young women after she presents a rousing and epic rendition of Mississippi Goddam. There are too many fantastic moments to pick out that I’d spoil the show if I overindulged.
Apphia Campbell is an exceptional performer. Her emotional vulnerability and versatility are complimented by silky smooth vocals. She has great strength in her lower register, reminiscent of Simone herself. It’s certainly not an identical vocal match but that’s irrelevant in this case – this isn’t a tribute act. Her voice brings the emotive qualities needed to aid the narrative she’s created. The standing ovation after her stellar performance of Feeling Good only confirms this. These choices launch her from performer to an embodiment of great storytelling. Her vocal, the narrative and the gravitas of the subject make for a meticulously placed puzzle.
Recommended Drink: One tall glass of sobriety. Best served cold.
Experience this fantastic show for yourselves as it embarks on a National Tour. Catch Black is the Color of My Voice presented by Seabright Productions as soon as you can! Tour details available here.