While Josette Bushell-Mingo’s one woman show about Nina Simone may invite comparisons with Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, currently at Wyndham’s Theatre , it exists in another dimension.
Yes, two black female icons; yes, two extraordinary voices. And, yes, hard lives made harder by drugs and other abuses. But Bushell-Mingo is not content to deliver a talented admirer’s tribute to Simone and surrender to the comfort of appreciation.
Riffing on the parallels between her life and and Simone’s, she explores the history of racism with an intensity that goes from interrogation to confrontation. While pictures of atrocities and racial abuse flash by on the screen behind a beaded curtain, Bushell-Mingo spits out dates and events like a machine-gunner.
She stamps out the 16 shots fired into unarmed teenager Laquan McDonald by a Chicago cop. She stops midway through a song and brings up the house lights, breaking down the barriers between audience and performer even further as she fashions an anger-fuelled scenario about killing all the white people in the audience and being besieged in the theatre. It is a deeply uncomfortable, adrenaline-spurting sequence – especially if your face is white.
“Nina didn’t forgive anyone,” she says. “And I’m a member of Nina’s church.” There is humour, too, as she describes the women who arrived at her mother’s wake to help her grieve. But outrage is never far away and the glittering rings on her hands begin to look like knuckledusters.
As the tension stretches to breaking point, she decides to give her Nina concert tribute after all and sings several of her greatest songs – Mississippi Goddamn, Feeling Good and Ain’t Got No, I Got Life, giving a gracious, ironic curtsy between numbers as she acknowledges the applause. At the end she introduces the members of her fantastic three piece band. “And me? I’m not Nina Simone.”
Not so much an impersonation as an invocation, this is theatre without a safety belt.