In Black is the Color of My Voice, Apphia Campbell tells the story of Nina Simone, the legendary singer-songwriter who died in 2003. In this one-woman show, Campbell performs as the music icon, recounting Simone’s religious upbringing and her ambition to be the first black concert pianist, despite her mother’s consternation at such ‘devil’s music’.
We see Simone’s involvement in the US civil rights movement and her increasing radicalism. References to the race riots, segregation and KKK of the twentieth century have obvious resonances in today’s political climate, making Black is the Color of My Voice an important piece of theatre.
Simone’s story is a moving one, but Campbell’s performance is for the most part subdued, except for occasional flashes of anger. The audience, too, is relatively subdued, and one major problem with the show’s venue – the Wine Bar in Gilded Balloon Teviot – is that the performer is not always visible for everyone in the audience, as there is a pesky large column in the middle of the audience space.
Although of course no one can measure up to Nina Simone’s talents, Campbell sings beautifully and resonantly, giving audience members goosebumps as she performs some of Simone’s greatest hits, such as ‘Feeling Good’. That’s part of the problem with Black is the Color of My Voice, however: It works better as a tribute act than as a theatre piece, as it is only in the moments of song that Campbell really conveys the spirit of Simone.
The actual narrative of the play itself struggles to engage the audience because Campbell cannot as adequately convey the other characters in Simone’s life. It’s a shame, too, that the backing music is just provided by a recording: a live orchestra, or at least another performer on stage with Campbell, would have brought the performance more vividly to life.