FROM the experimental physical theatre of Liverpool’s Hope Street Ltd to the West End, Josette Bushell-Mingo has had an extraordinary and far-reaching career.
A Unity Theatre patron, the London-born actress, singer and theatre maker has reached another high point with the success of her latest work, the excellent Nina – A Story About Me and Nina Simone, which ends its sold out premiere run at the theatre this week.
Bushell-Mingo uses the songs of the iconic singer to help examine hard-hitting issues of race, racist violence, and the black experience, both in the context of world history, and autobiographically.
“It’s a hardcore show and takes an audience through quite a labyrinth of feeling,” she says. “It has gone better than I hoped, but it’s been a long journey to get here. For me, it’s like coming home and it gives me a feeling of great pride and power to perform a show here in Liverpool, not only because of my own connection, but because of its colonial history and connections with slavery.”
In between joyous renditions of Nina Simone classics like Sinner Man and I Got Life, the show is full of disturbing home truths and rhetorical questions about race and society. It is a powerful combination, and Liverpool has had its own moments of shame and infamy in this regard; the Toxteth Riots are incorporated into Bushell-Mingo’s version of the uncompromisingly passionate protest song Mississippi Goddamn.
Still, it was only when beginning to write up this piece it became embarrassingly clear that the interview had turned to practically every subject under the sun but Nina Simone herself. If one iconic black female shaped the conversation, it was not a singer, nor a celebrity, or anyone who has courted a high profile, but Sandra Bland. Bland was pulled over by police for a supposed minor traffic violation in Texas last year – a simple act of apparently changing lanes without indicating; she died while being held in custody. It was later ruled she had killed herself; some believe there are still unanswered questions.
“I think I found something shifted in me as a human being with the death of Sandra Bland,” Bushell-Mingo says. “Something about the visceral, the life I saw in the video footage, left me in shock. Maybe I saw me – it could have been me. Something in my DNA shifted forever. I realised what I’ve done and what I give will be nothing compared to what she gave.”
Her death came at a time where many shocking stories of police shooting innocent black people – children, even – and facing no consequences spurred the Black Lives Matter movement.
“Call it rage, or action – this isn’t the end, this is the beginning. And this is something that started so long ago. But Black Lives Matter is not about the dismissal of other pain or suffering,” she says.
While its subject matter has the potential to take its white audience out of their comfort zone, it is an ultimately a piece of great humanity. “One of the driving forces of Nina is it’s okay just to listen. It’s the most vulnerable thing you can do as a human being, is to listen.”
Reviews of Nina and Me – so far all from white writers – have unconditionally praised, but also described ‘uncomfortable’ elements of the show.
“It’s not about whether the audience like me or don’t like me, but how does the piece make you feel? The show is part theatre, part concert and part gospel – meaning as in tosupport and help bear the burden.”
Josette Bushell-Mingo moved to Liverpool when the theatre company she joined after graduating from university, Kaboodle, uprooted to the city. She taught at Hope St Ltd, and regularly performed on the Unity stage. She counts the theatre’s former artistic director Graeme Phillips as a mentor and old friend. It was he who began to encourage the Unity’s patrons to develop their own work with the venue – this is how the seeds for Nina were sown.
“London can be very elitist, and when I arrived in Liverpool as a young artist there were so many class and cultural differences, an energy I had never experienced,” she says.
From the intimacy of the Unity to the glitz of the West End, Bushell-Mingo went on to win an Olivier award for her role as the first Rafiki in the UK transfer of The Lion King. Among the many accomplishments of her career so far, she founded the PUSH black arts festival at the start of the millennium, and was awarded an OBE for services to the arts in 2006.
She also moved to Sweden, where she now works with the country’s national theatre, touring theatre (Riksteatern, the co-producers of Nina), and the Silent Theatre, producing performances for deaf and hearing audiences; she is, needless to say, fluent in the language, and Swedish sign language to boot.
Making theatre in two countries comes with two different sets of challenges, Bushell-Mingo observes. There is no shortage of cash in Sweden, but diversity is an issue. In the UK, it is quite the opposite.
The move to Scandinavia was “for love”, she sighs affectionately. She mentions husband Stefan and her two sons in one of the most powerful, unsettling, and emotional segments of Nina. She is pleased that the work has already been so well-received and hopes to take the show to London, the US, and return to Liverpool with it in time.
“It’s very flattering and very inspiring to touch so many people, and see I’m going far enough that people feel I have answered stuff,” she says. “People are afraid to talk about [the themes of Nina] and I go there – wherever ‘there’ is – it’s very simple but it’s very important.
“What does it mean? Can you figuratively wash your hands of hundreds of years of history, I don’t know. I need help to find out, and that’s a strength, not a weakness. I don’t tell the audience anything they don’t know – I ask for help because I don’t know what Josette is thinking or would do. And I need help.”
Nina – A Story of Me and Nina Simone runs at the Unity Theatre until Saturday (October 29). It will then go on tour in Sweden.
Read the MADEUP review of the show here.