Theatre Review: NINA – A STORY ABOUT ME AND NINA SIMONE – The Lowry, Salford


NINA – A STORY ABOUT ME AND NINA SIMONE is a searing and soulful piece of theatre from Josette Bushell-Mingo

Having previously toured in the UK and Sweden in 2017, the British Arts Council has supported a returning 2018 UK tour of NINA – A STORY ABOUT ME AND NINA SIMONE, a hard hitting one woman show strengthened with an incredibly talented three piece Jazz band underscoring the piece.

Josette Bushell-Mingo is a UK London born actress now based in Sweden. Inspired by Simone, Josette came up with the concept for this show alongside Dritëro Kasapi and brought to us in collaboration with Liverpool’s Unity theatre.

Onto the stage with no intro, we are asked to picture the scene, Harlem 1969. Josette’s detailed prologue generates an excited frenzy at a time when the black music scene was igniting alongside the civil rights movement. We are cast into a shadowy memory of Simone’s Harlem Cultural Festival concert, the band coming begins to play ‘Revolution’ then bam, Josette stops it dead and the shows genuine premise comes to light.

A list of names is reeled off beginning a young Chicago boy, Laquan McDonall, shot 16 times by law enforcement, the hard hitting truth of the fact that the revolution seems to have come full swing, have we hit a full 360 and ended up right back where we were before the civil rights movement? “How did we come to a time when we have to say Black Lives Matter?” stamping her feet 16 times to count the number of bullets it took to kill the defenceless teenager. More names listed, not only in the US but around the world including the UK, the audience is quiet whilst they listen to the difficult and urgent questions we are being asked. This is far more than just a typical biography of Nina Simone.

We cut to a younger Josette, describing the day of her mother’s death and the profound sadness and loneliness she was feeling until a group of her mother’s peers from her local community and church arrived to support her through the wake and her realisation she had support she never realised she had in her community. This paralleled with the story of Nina Simone’s first concert at the age of eleven, at a church with an all-white and segregated congregation, where her parent were asked to sit in the back and that defiant little girl refused to play unless her parents were allowed to stay put in the front row where they belonged. This feels like the start of Josette’s realisation of Simone’s comparable thoughts and feelings and tangent passion for her activism and very verbal fight for personal freedom. Growing up as a small child in a period where she remembers watching the black minstrel shows on television and then suddenly seeing Nina singing as if she were singing directly to little Josette herself. Here a rendition of LITTLE GIRL BLUE sets her mood and she is able to accomplish throughout the show, carefully choosing which song to interject where.

This isn’t an easy watch in parts, it can be uncomfortable, the mixed but majority white audience is asked, directly, “What should we do, you’re killing us in the streets?” The question is posed, is violence on either side ever really the answer, is it justified in any way? We are given a flurry of visuals, the aftermath of racial violence on screen, it is tough to sit through.

The final act of the show is a delivery of a selection of Simone’s best known songs, FEELIN’ GOOD, AIN’T GOT NO LIFE, SINNERMAN, my personal favourite being MISSISSIPPI GODDAM. Josette, a seasoned vocal performer known for THE LION KING amongst other live performances delivers these songs so well and has an incredible voice.

Shapor Bastansiar, pianist and Musical Director, Shaney Forbes, Drums, and Level-Neville Malcolm, Bass, are incredible musicians and make it feel as if a whole band is playing and not just the three of them supporting Josette’s vocals. The mash-up of Bach and Kool and the Gang was hilarious.

4 out of 5 stars

NINA – A STORY ABOUT ME AND NINA SIMONE runs at The Lowry until 3 February 2018.