Preview: Nina

Lifelong fan and actor Josette Bushell-Mingo brings the singer’s life to the stage in Liverpool, writes Steve Lee

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Nina Simone was a force of nature. An incredible singer and pianist, she was complex and conflicted. In the mid-sixties – at the very peak of her popularity – she took a stand supporting Black Power and the civil rights movement, her commercial appeal subsequently plummeted and now, half a century on, Olivier-nominated actor Josette Bushell-Mingo is revisiting these troubled years and bringing Simone’s struggles back to the stage.

“This performance isn’t a history of Nina Simone – it’s very much a public dialogue about my relationship to her,” explains Bushell-Mingo. “The only person that can truly talk about Nina is Nina herself. I’m using her as a GPS, using her to help guide me through the brutal and turbulent times we find ourselves in. I re-sing her songs in a new context and relate them to questions about the new civil rights that we’re now trying to create.”

Joined by three musicians and using an audiovisual archive, the London-born actor plays herself – “Or at least a version of myself” – while interacting with her audience.

“I’m not going to stand there and talk to myself or just about myself. The specific period of her life we look at in this piece helps me, and hopefully the audience, to understand questions of forgiveness and, most importantly, her presence helps me articulate onstage things I’ve never articulated before.”

Bushell-Mingo first encountered Simone at the age of 10, while watching television at an aunt’s house. The singer has stayed with her since. She was initially shocked by Simone’s aura, then inspired by her power.

And although this production overlooks many facets of Simone’s multi-faceted life – “If you want to know about the men in her life, how the industry treated her, her bipolarism, go google it,” says Bushell-Mingo – the troubled legend’s presence continues to reassure her. “Nina’s always with me, but not to the extent that I want to be her. The audience doesn’t want her personal history, that’s not what the piece is about, but the Nina I do address is a Nina I’m happy to keep with me at all times. I feel I need her around to help me understand what’s going on around us today.

“As a 52 year old I still sometimes look at what’s going on around the world and wonder what is happening to us. What am I going to do regarding civil rights? What does revolution mean?

“So is this a piece about hope? Well, not really, but you can’t get hope unless you stand and face the truth.”

Simone passed away 13 years ago, without Bushell-Mingo having met her. Given Simone’s well-documented unpredictability, fiery temper and iron will, you have to wonder just how the actress would have handled coming face to face with the woman born Eunice Kathleen Waymon.

“I’d have been really scared, absolutely terrified,” she says. “I think I’d have just lit her cigarette and said ‘thank you’.”
Nina: A Story About me and Nina Simone, Unity Theatre, Liverpool, until 29 Oct

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