Olivier award nominee Josette Bushell-Mingo gave a powerhouse performance in the powerful and provocative Nina: A Story about me and Nina Simone that started a three night sell out run at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre last night. The show, a mixture of performance, song and spoken word, looks at the racism of our current times through the context of NIna Simone;s civil rights songs and the experiences of both the 1960s and of the star Josette. It is a sometimes uncomfortable watch for a white member of the audience, but it is never less than thought provoking and interesting, and those incredible songs still soar.
Josette starts the show celebrating a concert that Nina gave in 1969, and the show starts with smiles, happiness and euphoria as Josette starts to blast out ‘Revolution’, but soon Josette is abandoning the performance, explaining she can’t sing the song because the revolution didn’t come, and starts to tell the story of a black teenager recently shot 16 times by American police. It is a blistering monologue, complete with 16, spread out boot stamps to show just how brutal the treatment of the teenager was. This is continued with the names of other victims who have died in police stations and as victims of police shootings or race crimes. Josette’s delivery is astounding, she is clearly putting every emotion into her performance and it keeps the audience in stunned silence.
But is is also interspersed with those Nina Simone songs, including Feeling Good and ‘Ain’t got no, I got life’ surely one of the most life affirming, glorious songs ever written. And there is humour, when Josette tells of the women who descended on her home and her grief when her mother died. But race and the tale of mindless killings are never far away, with images of lynchings and racist murders are also flashed on the stage curtain, and when Josette talks about killing the white members of the audience, I was distinctly uncomfortable.
Josette ends by restarting the concert, and the songs are beautifully performed by the star and her band Shapor Bastansiar, Shaney Forbes and Neville Malcolm. he ends with a rousing performance of the previously abandoned ‘Revolution’, maybe she feels that now she has made her point so potently, now she can sing the song.