Nina, devised by Josette Bushell- Mingo and Dritëro Kasapi, transports us to Harlem, 1969. Through the lively cheers of the crowd, the energy of the instrument trio backing Nina, Bushell-Mingo enters the space and takes in the audience as we do the same with her. She has the funky style of the time, with an impressive afro and large gold earrings. Utilising witty comments directed straight to the audience, the underlying support from her band and dynamic lighting and set design, we are taken on a personal journey between Bushell-Mingo and Nina Simone; this is not an impersonation.
Using the Maria space at the Young Vic, with its steeply raked seating, you are drawn into the intimate setting wherever you are seated. The beginning of the play is filled with energy and head-bob inducing music, as Bushell-Mingo dives into singing Nina Simone’s ‘Revolution’, however this is suddenly interrupted, the music deflating as she suggests that the revolution is still to come. Bushell-Mingo so poignantly tells us the stories of the deplorable treatment and murder of black people throughout history, and at one point asks us, “How can we live in a time where we have to say, black lives matter?” This really hammers home the message of this production, that the outrage felt during Nina Simone’s era is still so relevant in today’s world. Interspersed with beautifully sung songs such as ‘Four Women’ and ‘Ain’t Got No I Got Life’, Bushell- Mingo tells the story of how she discovered Nina Simone and how it helped her explore her ‘blackness’, all the while holding the audience in the palm of her hand. Her ability to effortlessly and fluidly play a variety of characters, as well as hold the authority over her band (piano Shapor Bastansiar; drums Shaney Forbes; bass- Jair-Rohm Parker Wells) and backstage crew, altogether emulates the presence and spirit that Nina Simone is known for.
Matt Haskins’ stunning lighting design and Rosa Maggiora’s stage design makes for almost cinematic viewing, with varying projections being shown on the shimmering fringe curtain that covers the back wall of the stage, and vintage lamps shining behind the same curtain to add that 70s golden glamour. The lighting masterfully transitions with the energy of the piece, maintaining its immediacy without overpowering it.
The end of the show is met with a standing ovation, the audience not ceasing until an encore is performed, and rightly so, for this subject is totally necessary, nevertheless tragic, as society still needs this kind of message now. Underneath the moving songs is a feeling of anger and frustration with the way of the world, as we are told that Nina Simone said, “Freedom is having no fear”. This message is presented without it feeling like a lecture, cleverly and simply showing us the facts, and leaving us with that spirit which we still need.
Nina is playing Young Vic until July 29.
Photo: Andrew Ness