Review: Black Is The Color Of My Voice
Online Music Editor, Tom Bosher, reviews Apphia Campbell’s Black Is The Color Of My Voice at the Northcott Theatre.
Written and directed by Apphia Campbell, Black is The Color of My Voice is a one woman show, reflecting on the life of infamous jazz singer Nina Simone. Following the death of her father, she echoes her life through music, as a once prodigious child pianist, presumed a path in service of the church, turned worldwide icon of not only music, but civil rights. Due to unexpected illness, the normal actor Florence Odumosu was replaced by the original writer and director, Apphia Campbell.
It was sometime last year I watched Questlove’s Summer of Soul documentary on the somehow forgotten Harlem Festival of 1969, in which Nina performs. I was spellbound watching her sing, and with the first public performance of ‘To Be Young, Gifted And Black’, as well as ‘Why? (The King Of Love Is Dead’, an anthem in ode to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., it was hard not to be balled over by the force of her. My incredulity at the effervescent soul that was Miss Simone quickly turned into a pursuit of more awe and wonder. After previously knowing just her major hits, and stunning cover of Janis Iain’s ‘Stars’ – go listen to it if you haven’t already, it’s crushing – I made a chronological playlist of cherrypicked favourites, here.
What I discovered pervading her music, was the authority and electrifying presence in her voice. It works its way through headphones, radios or crappy bluetooth speakers, to sit you down, right in front of her, like a child staring up at a parent or teacher, and you feel as though you can, and should, do nothing but be quiet, and listen.
So, it’s safe to say the bar of necessary ‘stage presence’ has been set pretty high.
Imitation is a fickle opponent for any actor, as we’ve seen continually in the seemingly relentless biopics of musicians on screen in recent years.
Campbell executed a great show at the Northcott. Naturally, you wonder what the routine performance with the regular actor might look like in comparison. You couldn’t help but feel the technical imprints of her contribution as writer and director marking her performance, slightly inhibiting a consistent, organic feeling of presence that might inspire you to go, ‘Oh my God, Nina Simone is on stage’. Imitation is a fickle opponent for any actor, as we’ve seen continually in the seemingly relentless biopics of musicians on screen in recent years. Whilst Campbell’s presence may not have ‘conjured Nina before me’, she still constructed some truly incredible moments. Working best in the spaces between words with the details and intricacies of movement and facial expression, Campbell was able to push beyond mere likeness. Childlike cheekiness would glimmer in her eyes, swinging the tempo of the play from speckles of humour and playfulness to a tuneful sorrow. Sadness would shift to a truly Simone-esque lens of beauty and power even within midst of suffocating tragedy. It was upon this, the anger and upset, that Campbell’s performance was most strongly built upon in displaying the various chisels that sculpted Nina into the sharp and determined character she was.
Childlike cheekiness would glimmer in her eyes, swinging the tempo of the play from speckles of humour and playfulness to a tuneful sorrow.
Conveniently, the most impressive aspect of Black Is The Color is the technicalities and mediums it constructs its essence through, primarily the use of Nina’s music that renders a reliance on performance as imitation far less necessary. Through song, the play becomes an ode to Simone through her music, rather than simply an ode to the woman propped by imitation. Memory is sought and found through song, and implemented exceptionally well as the soundtrack facilitates seamless movement from thought to music, and back again. With Nina, we face the past to move to the future, as the fresh wound of her father’s passing lets us slip through her life like a knife through butter. Props of memorabilia carry us through history, conjuring her interactions with the past, along with hugely successful lighting set pieces to invoke broadcasts relating to civil rights, that manifested truly electric moments.
Through song, the play becomes an ode to Simone through her music, rather than simply an ode to the woman propped by imitation.
For me, the most enjoyable parts of Campbell’s performance were the resurrections of Nina’s evangelical mother, clearly conveying the source of that concentrated beam of force and focus so distinctive of Nina and her stern withering gazes. There was a vivid conviction of spirit that at times, truly felt like what Nina imbued her lyricism and piano-playing with.
Emotional cracks in voice and instants of acapella succeed in chilling me through with goosebumps, as the hard convictions and scepticisms of her past environment, charged her into being the force of power and change she was. This is exemplified in the scathing response of her abusive partner to her indignation at the news of the Alabama church bombings, as it becomes the fuel and resultant driving force of Nina’s lyricism. Against bombs and guns, she is told condescendingly, “all you have is your music”. And Mississippi Goddamn, music is all she needs.