REVIEW: Unity Theatre and Riksteatern Present: Nina - a story about me and Nina Simone

Never in my life have I been more excited about writing a review. On a wet and blustery Tuesday evening with the enticement of a warm cosy home luring me to stay indoors, I resisted the temptation and made my way over to the Unity theatre in Liverpool to watch the show that is Nina - a story about me and Nina Simone. Me and my shadow Elise sat comfortably in our seats with eager anticipation. We were so happy to be there, we'd made the effort and we were duly rewarded for that effort by an outstanding performance.

Josette Bushell- Mingo OBE is a patron of Unity Theatre and deservedly so an Olivier award nominee. She reflects on the life of the icon that is Nina Simone. Nina the activist, the black woman, the challenger of the status quo. Accompanied by a band of extraordinary musicians and directed by Dritëro Kasapi the show features twelve songs by the singer including well known tracks such as Feeling good and Little girl Blue.

Photo Credit Andrew Ness

Josette appears to the left of stage clad in black from head to toe with pristine afro hair and long black boots; exuding gravitas and power. She stands erect and explains to the audience "This is how it was, Nina Simone 1969". She paints a vivid picture of the day of the concert where Nina was about to perform. The shine of the hair oil on the pristine afro's adorned with the obligatory afro comb. A time when everyone was smiling. This was a point of change. A time of revolution. Nina would lead, inspire and use her voice to lead a revolution. Josette then bursts into song and sings "Revolution" stopping midway through announcing that she is not going to sing that song anymore. She sets the scene for what is to follow. Revolution means to turn, to circle. However, she laments that the problem with a circle is that you end up back where you started. It's like a car stuck in the mud. 

Recalling the horrific shooting of Laquan McDonald, a 17 year old black man who was shot 16 times in 13.5 seconds, Josette emphatically challenges the rationale behind such mindless actions of the police. She asks the question "How did we come to a place where we have to say black lives matter?" She continues, "I'm going to talk about black people. Is that OK?" The show is a retort to the notion that progress has been made in the quest to end racism. The silence in the audience is breathtaking. Black lives do matter.

The show is filled with poignant moments as Josette touches upon the 1960’s Civil Rights movement, Nina’s well documented struggles as well as her own personal challenges.  She uses text and music to take the audience on a journey of introspection, self evaluation and showcases the hopes and dreams of both hers and Nina's. The music is second to none and Josette's stunning vocal ability is complimented beautifully by the remarkable live band comprised of Marque Gilmore (drums), Jair-Rohm Parker Wells (Bass) and Shapor Bastansiar on piano.

What an absolute privilege to have been in the audience, to have witnessed this compelling performance, to eavesdrop into the world of Nina Simone as seen through the protagonist Josette and to gain an insight into both of these women's lives.

It makes you take a large intake of breath, it forces you to stop and think of the injustice that prevails in this world due to institutionalised racism. It pricks at your conscience and makes you question whether there really has been enough progress; whether there has been a revolution; whether times have truly changed for the better.

This show is stunning, this is exquisite. This is no "puppy dog" that you coo and ah at and lose the memory of. This is provocative and it is real life. 
Photo credit Andrew Ness

With interjections of Humour, anger and undeniable candour Josette pulls no punches with her language. She tells it like it is and you simply have to listen. My eyes did not leave the stage for the duration of the performance. I was mesmerised by her energy and enthusiasm, her eloquence, her grit and determination which undoubtedly mirrored Nina Simone's. This is captivating theatre. The musicians were excellent and connected with Josette throughout.  Music was their common language and their dialogue was a joy to behold.

It hits you between the eyes, winds you and leaves you breathless. This world premier of the show is outstanding. Josette is extraordinary, exceptional in fact. Whilst it was easy to see the demarcation between Josette and Nina, when she got into character it was phenomenal and thoroughly convincing.

The narrative is deep. The subject matter is addressed with passion and empathy. Nina - a story about me and Nina Simone celebrates how Nina changed the world and in turn, changed us all. You will leave the auditorium a changed person after seeing this performance. It is emotional and leaves an indelible imprint on your consciousness leaving you to question the current state of affairs that exists today.

If you do one thing this month, go and buy a ticket for this show. You need to hear this, you need to hang on to every word and every note that emanates from Josette Bushell-Mingo's mouth. This is undoubtedly the best performance I have watched all year. There is a call to action, to eliminate the mindset that one person is inferior to another. It pricks the conscience of the audience and challenges each individual to make and be the change that they wish to see in the world. Josette and her band received a standing ovation at the press night performance and deserve the same sign of appreciation throughout the tour.

Rating: Five stars, stunning.

The performance runs at Unity Theatre, Liverpool, from 15 - 29 October before embarking on a 6 month tour of Sweden.

Running time: Approx between 1hr 20mins and 1hr 40mins.
Tickets are available here


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