Edinburgh Fringe 2014
Play the Spotlight Theatre presents Apphia Campbell in “Black is the Color of my Voice” at the Gilded Balloon. Loosely based on the events in the life of American Jazz legend Nina Simone, the play follows the life of Mena Bordeaux, a successful singer seeking redemption after the untimely death of her father.
Mena Bordeaux is in isolation, trying to give up cigarettes, alcohol and the telephone. She’s mourning the death of her father and reminiscing about the past. At the age of 3 she surprised her deeply religious mother by showing innate musical talent on the piano. With local financial support, she receives piano lessons and finds that she connects immediately with the classical music genre- particularly Bach. News of her talent spreads, and it is at her first classical music recital that she becomes aware of racial divide when, although she is performing, her parents must sit at the back of the hall. Despite her mother’s wishes for her to use her musical talent in the church, her musical journey leads her to amalgamate her classical training with the blues and soul singing she listens to in secret with her father. Her unique sound of classical piano playing and gospel singing is a success but her true vocation doesn’t become apparent until the rise of the civil rights movement. Frustrated by the murder of the 4 girls in Mississippi, she takes to songwriting and, armed with the talent for writing provocative lyrics, she finds where she belongs. As the story develops, she reveals more of her character and events that have shaped her, lost loves, hope, disappointment, prominent social events- such as the death of Martin Luther King that almost derails her. Throughout she bemoans the loss of her dear father and tries to come to terms with their eternal separation, her singing voice rings round the room filled with the mourning sadness that the gospel voice merits. Apphia Campbell is a tiny birdlike creature with delicate features and the most tremendous gospel singing voice. She begins the show in darkness and the voice that comes from the stage is hauntingly stunning. The drama takes place as she talks to her father’s photograph reminding him of poignant moments in their past. From a large trunk she pulls out mementoes, her father’s jacket and shoes, her first recital dress, her mother’s favourite hat. Donning each one she leaps from the bed to the floor, particularly funny when mimicking her god fearing preaching mother and flitting about like the small girl she once was. Sporadically breaking into song, she entertains us with some of Simone’s most well-known songs. I am lucky enough to be sitting in the front row and her version of “I Put a Spell on You” does just that. This is an interesting piece that has a couple of areas that need ironing out. I am overwhelmed by the absence of a piano and apart from an early mime, which on the day I am there misses its cue and is slightly out of synch, I wonder why the relevance of how unique Simone’s piano playing was not emphasised. That Campbell could sing her songs was in no way in doubt, but she sang along to pedestrian backing tracks which, for me, detracted from her musical performance. We never find out the purpose of the character’s isolation, or where her husband and mother have gone. This is however, just one woman’s opinion, because I am sitting in an audience who love every minute. Where Campbell roars all the way home though is her ability to take these songs and make them her own. The favourites are all there with a show stopping “Feeling Good” to bring down the rafters. It’s worth it alone just to hear her voice. Go, See, Enjoy.