Nina -A Story About Me and Nina Simone is without doubt a tale that needs to be told and deserves to be heard.
Performer Josette Bushell-Mingo OBE is one of the patrons of the Unity, having been based in Liverpool in her early 20s. This show is a co-production with Riksteatern, the national touring theatre of Sweden.
Despite running through without an interval, there are two distinct acts to Nina. The first is Bushell-Mingo’s emotional monologue, peppered only with short bursts of song. It is not an easy listen – she is not afraid to turn her stark rhetorical questions to the audience – but such a necessary one. It is one woman’s examination of race and blackness, rage and heartache, desperation and exhaustion at the state of the world.
In our times, where innocent black people – sometimes children – can be shot by police for no reason at all, what, if anything, has changed since Nina Simone sang of Revolution in the 1960s? There are some very personal anecdotes included as she thinks this through – a rich tale about the night before her mother’s funeral, for one – but Bushell-Mingo’s dialogue is not self-indulgent. Quite the opposite in fact, it is so exquisite and resonant, and the message so vital, the words would be a gift for any performer.
It’s not just the shocking extent of extraordinary American violence under the spotlight here, as Bushell-Mingo references the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence and even the very recent death in Liverpool of Mzee Mohammed following a police incident. She even squeezes a mention of Toxteth into her version of the blistering protest song Mississippi Goddamn.
The second act is more of a ‘concert’, performing Simone’s best-known tunes in full and encouraging dancing in the aisles, without losing sight of the power of the main themes of the piece; probably acknowledging the importance of such catharsis.
Instrumental in this (pun probably intended) is the excellent band accompanying Bushell-Mingo throughout – drummer Shanay Forbes, bassist Jair-Rohm Parker Wells, and pianist Shapor Bastansiar.
The show entertains, illuminates, moves, educates and unifies. Nina – A Story About Me and Nina Simone is important. It is theatre that really, truly matters. Indeed, it could arguably be the most valuable and most definitive work the Unity has ever staged – giving a platform and a voice to a hugely political, fiercely independent, intensely visceral, inspirational and challenging piece of theatre, recalling history yet existing very much in the here and now; devised and performed by a sensational and intuitive performer and communicator, whose career began to flourish here decades ago. For all these reasons, it is a very special show indeed.
A full interview with Josette Bushell-Mingo will be up on the site later this week. Nina – A Story About Me and Nina Simone is on at the Unity until October 29.