by Lola Peters
A long, coffin-shaped, red-fabric draped box sits center stage at Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute’s Theater. A pillow atop the stage-right end of the box indicates it might be a bed. An area rug extends from beneath the bed in all directions. Immediately stage center right of the bed, and at a slight angle facing toward it, is a farmhouse-style wooden chair. A framed, black and white photograph of a man in a suit and hat stands on the seat of the chair. Sitting at the foot of the bed, stage center left, is a closed brown suitcase. Stage left of the suitcase is another farmhouse-style chair, this one faces the audience directly, with a small occasional table in front of it.
As house lights dim the speaker system begins to play the introductory piano chords of an old blues standard. Stage lights dim to a spot downstage center and actor Apphia Campbell enters the spot and begins: “Sea-line woman.” She sings softly then increases volume and speed. Stopping abruptly, she turns and addresses the photograph. As Mena Bordeaux (born Eugenie Williams) she is talking to her dead father.
In the ninety minutes that follow, we learn the life trajectory of this fictionalized version of Nina Simone. In conversation with her father Mena touches on her start as a three-year-old piano prodigy, love for Bach, discovery of jazz and blues, difficult marriages, and role in the Civil Rights movement. In a series of vignettes anchored by items she pulls from the suitcase, Mena sings some of Ms. Simone’s most popular music to trigger or emphasize memories.
During the question and answer period after the performance, Ms. Campbell explains the context of the play. Nina Simone’s father died in 1971, after they had been estranged for about eighteen months. A spiritual practitioner in Liberia supposedly told Ms. Simone to go to a certain room and stay there for three days to heal the rift with her now dead father. According to the story, she followed his instructions and emerged after three days saying that she saw her father. Ms. Campbell’s play imagines what transpired during those three days. Every story and song used in the play comes directly from Nina Simone’s life.
As a solo performance, this play is a wonderful vehicle for Ms. Campbell’s acting and singing abilities. She portrays Mena Bordeaux’s emotional transitions authentically and well. It is easy to believe the story she is telling about a woman’s struggles in coming to terms with her father’s death and his meaning in her life.
The program says:
“Inspired by the life of Nina Simone, the show features Apphia Campbell in the role of Bordeaux, performing music in the style of jazz greats Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, and Ella Fitzgerald.”
Ms. Campbell has a strong voice that does well with the music. There are moments, however, when she is overpowered by the recorded background music coming through the house speakers, and the subtleties of the lower end of her range are lost. This is particularly true both times she performs Sea-line Woman. Her style is warm and wonderful when she sings a cappella or with recorded background in full voice. However, her affect while acting and singing does not convey Nina Simone’s stern and stubborn persona. Perhaps I’m just spoiled by the likes of local vocalists Elnah Jordan, Josephine Howell, Eugenie Jones and Sheila Kay.
Ms. Campbell wrote this play and originally performed it in Shanghai, China, where it was very well received. American audiences, perhaps more familiar with Nina Simone’s musical legacy, may ask more. At the start of the question and answer period, the audience was asked to yell out words that described their experience. One man’s word was “confused.” I’m with him.
If this play had been about a generic singer who lived through the Civil Rights movement, I would have enjoyed it a great deal. The acting is strong; the vocals and choice of music, wonderful. However, invoking Nina Simone and focusing only on elements of her life changes everything. Ms. Simone had a particular voice. She was/is to vocalists what Miles Davis was/is to trumpet players. Her style was unique and unmistakably direct and sparse. She was a storyteller in the greatest of folk traditions, writing not only anthems but also nuanced personal pieces about justice, love, and loyalty. Her musical approach was completely immersed in her deep, deep intellect. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1980, she suffered terribly with both depression and mania and it influenced her decision-making and her music. These elements are reflected in the full range of her songbook, but not displayed anywhere in this play. I wanted to get to know Nina Simone better through this performance, but felt that I got Nina Lite, instead.
That left me with another dilemma: why was this play? What was the purpose of the story: to educate me about Nina Simone’s life? If so, why use the artifice of another character’s name? Was it intended to make a statement about the relationship between parents and children in the midst of social turmoil? Did it intend to create parallels between Civil Rights and today? It did each of these things in small bits, but never made a full case for any of them.
Black is the color of my Voice has elements that could make it an excellent play. First, Ms. Campbell needs to decide which play it is: Nina Simone’s story or a mash-up of styles and music used to tell the story of a generic Civil Rights era singer. Either choice could turn into an excellent presentation and Ms. Campbell clearly displayed that she has the skills to pull off either.
Ms. Campbell mentioned plans to create a musical performance based on just the music of Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald. I hope the good folks at Central District Forum for Arts & Ideas, who brought this play to Seattle, will bring us that performance as well.