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Review: Black is the Colour of My Voice at The Seymour Centre

Review by Anja Bless


In an age of biopics, bringing the story of an acclaimed singer and performer while walking the line between impersonation and believability is no mean feat. It is even more difficult when that biopic is not performed on screen, but on the stage. But Black is the Colour of My Voice, a play written and performed by Apphia Campbell, is one show that accomplishes this tricky task. 


Inspired by the life and songs of Nina Simone, Campbell’s play follows the famous singer and civil rights activists’ rise to fame and the sacrifices and legacy she made and created along the way. Performed as a ritual of redemption in mourning of the loss of her late father, Campbell’s portrayal of Nina Simone is sensitive, playful, heart wrenching, and engrossing to the point that you at times forget that it is not actually Simone on that stage. Much of the strength of this performance comes from Campbell’s own extraordinary vocals as she ties together some of Simone’s most famous works. Her closing performance of Feeling Good and her rendition of Mississippi Goddamn were particularly notable. 


The intoxicating nature of Campbell’s vocal performance also brought at times a much needed lift to Black is the Colour of My Voice. While Nina Simone lived an exceptional life, the structure of this performance in its confinement to a single room and one-way dialogue with Simone’s deceased father does not always reflect the vitality and breadth of Simone’s experiences. The style of monologue, guided by the exploration of sentimental items packed away in a suitcase, draw from too many theatre tropes to create a truly memorable script. Many of the most fascinating parts of Simone’s life, including her rise to fame, her engagement with record labels in the context of a segregated America, and the difficulties Simone faced with her own mental health are sadly not explored in any great depth. The centrality of her father in the script’s design also does not feel justified. Simone is a compelling enough character in herself without the need to orientate her story around the relationship with anyone else.  


The Seymour Centre’s Everest Theatre as a venue also hampered the intimacy this performance needed. Many of Campbell’s funniest and most powerful moments fell somewhat flat in the vastness of the theatre as it stood in contrast to the small and simplistic set. This is a challenge for any solo show, but the vulnerability with which Campbell portrayed Simone felt especially isolated in this setting. 


However, clever lighting and sound design did assist in giving more dynamics to the performance. It was easy to believe the switch from bedroom to jazz club, or to follow Simone as she began to awaken to the racial violence unfolding around her. These moments helped to reinvigorate the audience and bring Campbell’s work back up to the level of grandiosity befitting Nina Simone. 


The story of one of the key figures in the American civil rights movement, and of a Black woman navigating the worlds of classical and jazz music, and then international fame, is one well-deserving of the stage. And Campbell is ready and able to tell it. However, it would be exciting to see this production progress beyond a bedroom, a suitcase, and a conversation with a dead father. To allow the impressive presence of Nina Simone to truly take centre stage. 

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