“I am not Nina Simone.” This is the refrain with which Josette Bushell-Mingo punctuates her hour-and-a-half long show – but despite such protestations, she does her darndest to impersonate the 1960s civil rights figurehead. She’s got the full-bodied afro and loose-limbed hip-swinging of her earlier years, as well as the shaved head and uncompromising view on racial tensions of her later ones – and the soulful singing voice which accompanied her throughout. However, it’s her deep-seated hatred of white people which sticks most in the minds and throats of those in attendance this evening.
The racial intolerance is brought to the forefront of Bushell-Mingo’s act early on in the show, with her feigning a breakdown and lamenting the lack of progress made in today’s society with regards to race relations. Highlighted by the appalling need for a Black Lives Matter campaign, Bushell-Mingo justifiably points out the atrocities that have been and are still being carried out against ethnic minorities in this country and overseas. However, her zealousness and fury (much like Simone’s own indignation) does not allow for shades of culpability; everyone in the Traverse theatre who isn’t a minority deserves to be shot on the spot, according to her lop-sided world view.
As a piece of theatre, it’s an intense, uncomfortable and highly powerful tool; anywhere else, it’s tantamount to inciting racial hatred. Though the second half of the show segues uneasily into a gamut of Simone’s greatest hits, it’s hard to escape the hostility that was palpable just moments before. The crowd may clap along when requested to do so, but with them being forced to feel bad about the colour of their skin for the first 40 minutes, the audience feels like a captive one – and not in the positive sense of the term. It’s a daring but ultimately disjointed gamble which doesn’t pay off and leaves a sense of alienation and division; Simone would no doubt have approved, but it surely isn’t the way to move forward in the 21st century.
As for the songs themselves, Bushell-Mingo gives accomplished rendition of the classics, with the glaring exception of I Got Life. Inexplicably, this ham-fisted version comes off as a karaoke effort, and a poor one at that, which is strange as she demonstrates her superb vocal abilities on other tracks such as I Loves You, Porgy and Feeling Good. Her three-piece backing band are flawless throughout and though the night is undoubtedly far more than a mere tribute act, the jollity of the finale seems forced after what came before. Simone and Bushell-Mingo may be unable to forget what has transpired over the last half century, but equally the Traverse is not able to forget what transpired over the last half hour.