Review: Nina - A Story About Me and Nina Simone at the REP | Redbrick | University of Birmingham

Review: Nina – A Story About Me and Nina Simone at the REP

Culture critic Holly Reaney reviews the 'arrestingly powerful' Nina - A Story About Me and Nina Simone at the REP.

Nina Simone was one of the most iconic voices of the twentieth century. Her cool, blues voice is immortal and her contributions to music are iconic. Of Simone, Josette Bushell-Mingo states that she was ‘One of the greatest musical artists of all time’ and after this, I would be tempted to agree. Beyond her music, Simone was a powerful force known for her sharp temper. A civil rights activist, she was a woman who held a deep pride in her black skin at a time where to be a black woman meant facing substantial prejudice. Throughout her one-woman show Olivier Award-nominated actress Josette Bushell-Mingo guides the audience through Simone’s life and work as well as exploring the powerful connection that Nina Simone had on her as a musician, an activist and a woman. ‘I don’t play Nina Simone’ says Bushell-Mingo ‘I inhabit her spirit’.

‘I don’t play Nina Simone’ says Bushell-Mingo ‘I inhabit her spirit’

Listening to the audience as we queued to enter the REP’s more intimate STUDIO space, nobody really knew what to expect. Some anticipated a musical biopic, some expected a concert, others were convinced that Bushell-Mingo and Simone were once friends. The finished performance was all of these, and none of them. It was a performance like nothing I have ever seen, nor probably will again. The lights did not go down as the performance began to start. The musicians, who had been chatting between themselves onstage as the audience entered, took their seats. Then Bushell-Mingo enters the stage. She begins to tell the story of 1969, the year Simone sung at the Harlem cultural festival, crescendoing her descriptions of anxious, energy-fuelled crowds, all waiting for Nina Simone to begin her concert. In light of her enthused descriptions of wild crowds, the reluctance and poise of Bushell-Mingo’s own audience was all the more keenly felt. However, as the narrative began to twist away from music and towards injustice and inequality, the tone of the audience felt more apt.

Accompanied by a three-piece live band, directed by Shapor Bastansiar, Bushell-Mingo’s incredible voice explored each of Simone’s works in turn, including Ain’t Got No,I Got Life, Feeling Good and Revolution. Bushell-Mingo embodies Simone’s raw and passionate style, evoking her potency and determination as she intersperses music with narration.

Bushell-Mingo embodies Simone’s raw and passionate style, evoking her potency and determination as she intersperses music with narration

Bushell-Mingo’s raw, intense performance made for purposefully uncomfortable viewing at times. Shouting out the name of victims of racial murders, Bushell-Mingo questioned Simone’s claims of revolution, ‘How the F*** did we come to a time when we have to say ‘black lives matter’?’ A single heeled black boot stamps out the sixteen gunshots that killed the unarmed black Chicago teenager Laquan McDonald, reminding the audience of how desensitised we may have become to racial murders, this performance reminded us all of the reality behind the headlines. Bushell-Mingo continues this train of thought. Her hypothetical murder spree, saw her turning an imaginary gun on the predominantly white audience, singling out black members and hypothetically setting them free. The rest would be killed. In this situation she even hypothetically turns the gun on her white husband. There is no gun on stage, but there doesn’t need to be a prop to hammer home the reality of this argument.  I have always been in the privileged position to not feel uncomfortable in my skin. To suddenly have that turned around, to have the hypothetical gun pointed at you, was terrifying, and something I think everyone in a position of privilege needs to feel. It is an arrestingly powerful way to remind an audience of the reality of these murders, a reminder that we are all equal, that this is an atrocity and that this is not okay.

Simone reflected the world she saw within her music, the 1960s civil rights movement being a particular source of inspiration. Bushell-Mingo draws parallels between the world Simone saw and the world in which we live raising questions as to how far we have really come when people are still having to proclaim that ‘Black Lives Matter’. She highlights the necessity of the continuation of the civil rights movement, nearly sixty years on, and how even today people must use their voices to continue the revolution.


11th March 2018 at 9:00 am

Images from

Andrew Ness