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Review: Black is the Color of My Voice at Atheneum Theatre 2

Review by Naomi Cardwell

Seabright Live’s Black is The Color of My Voice begins with a song - low, melancholy, and rich enough to fill the generous theatre, rising around us as if from the floor. Apphia Campbell, diminutive against the enormous black stage curtains, sings in brightly-coloured clothes with a jade-green cloth around her hair. The set of the one-woman play is simple: a chair, a table and a bed strewn with jewel-toned blankets. In this room, her character endures a reckoning with the many threads of her past - a ritual, she calls it, entailing three days’ contemplation in solitude, armed with only three cigarettes and a suitcase full of memories.

Based on the life of Nina Simone, the play is a brilliant patchwork of recollections drawn from the jazz phenomenon’s life and inspired by her music. Its narrative sprawls through the singer’s earliest experiences with institutionalised racism, as a prodigious youth denied a place at the Juilliard school, to her fearless contributions to the American Civil Rights movement. Written and performed by Campbell, the play is a monologue addressed to Simone’s deceased father, whose painful estrangement is woven into the fabric of all the singer’s memories. 

The script is filled with tragedy, disappointment, alienation and sheer grit – and yet there’s room for lots of deep belly laughs as well. Directors Aaron Hawkins and Nate Jacobs make excellent use of the sparse set, and of Campbell’s gift for physical comedy, to spool out characters, vignettes and memories through time – from lectures by Simone’s hilarious, finger-waggling mother to a terrifying episode at the hands of her abusive husband, Andrew Stroud. 

Lighting designer Clancy Flynn deftly turns the space from a glamorous concert hall to a mundane downtown hotel room as if by magic, while Joseph Degnan’s intuitive sound design provides the grandiose reverb to elevate Campbell’s big numbers, as well as the grounded atmosphere of the simple bedroom where she hums to herself, rifling through her suitcase. 

At the top of a generously carpeted staircase, the Atheneum 2 theatre is deliciously cool and airy on the hot night we attend despite being packed to capacity. The performance suffers badly from the theatre’s incomprehensible decision not to impose a lockout policy, with central double doors pouring light and sound into the dark space every time a latecomer enters, and banging closed in their wake. To Campbell’s credit, the disruptions barely register an impact on her magnetic performance. It’s difficult all the same to recover our concentration and fall into step again with the almost sacred, meditative atmosphere of the piece.

Weaving the patchwork together is Campbell’s incredible, effortless voice. From chatting to her father’s picture or exclaiming over treasures in her suitcase, she seems to take flight and soar into song on a whim, filled with joy and strength and light. Number after number pour fourth, often acapella, once memorably delivered from a position curled up on her bed, face pressed into her pillow. It’s achievement enough to reprise Nina Simone’s catalogue, but staggering that the Campbell is able to do so while sustaining a demanding physicality of a one-woman show. 

Campbell is not only a consummate singer, but a gifted and incisive writer to boot. Paired with the music and memories are beautifully curated snippets of history: the words of I Have a Dream by Martin Luther King Jr. are contextualised, as Campbell turns a television dial, within the abrasively racist discourse bald-facedly aired in newsreels at the time. The juxtaposition is shocking, and Campbell masterfully channels the outrage into an unforgettable belted-out rendition of Mississippi Goddamn.

Behind me, at some point toward the end, a member of the audience begins to sing along under her breath. She halts, embarrassed, then picks up later as though she’s compelled. In front of me, a man leans forward, fervently mouthing along with the words to Dr. King’s speech until his wife elbows him. Next to me, someone shifts and quietly wrestles back tears. These little eruptions happen all throughout the performance, as if nobody can help it, so electric is the air around Apphia Campbell. It gathers momentum until the final number - I won’t spoil it - which has the audience on their feet, roaring for an encore. Black is the Color of My Voice is the recipient of a glut of global awards as well as our own 2024 Overall Best Theatre & Physical Theatre prize at Adelaide Fringe. Raw, uplifting and inspiring, it’s a defining must-see for 2024.

Image Supplied


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