Singer and playwright Apphia Campbell has been performing her one-woman show about Nina Simone since 2013, but after performances in Brighton, Shanghai and New York, this is its first London date. The musician and activist has long been a source of inspiration to artists but Campbell uses the narrative of Simone’s early career as inspiration for this short play with music. Alone in her dressing room, Simone revisits the people and episodes from her past by way of preparation for the evening’s performance.
The Crazy Coqs stage doesn’t generally lend itself to dramatic performance and the sightlines are not great, so when Campbell steps out onto the stage in Simone’s trademark headscarf there’s a moment of uncertainty. This dissolves quickly as she gradually draws the audience into Simone’s story, on the understanding that you have to make peace with the past before you can establish your future. As an author, Campbell has a natural gift for dialogue and injects some humour into the dramatic text, chiefly with impressions of Simone’s puritanical mother.
The real strength here is how Campbell captures that mesmerising blend of righteous indignation and beguiling vulnerability, not just in the dialogue but also in her interpretation of the songs. Ettore Manni’s sound design is remarkably sensitive and successfully heightens the drama. Campbell’s vocals – the musical accompaniment is not live – thankfully match the power of her writing, lending steel to the strident Mississippi Goddam and sensuality to the standard Feeling Good.