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Josette Bushell-Mingo blows the roof off with this searing look at the life of NIna Simone
Wow. It’s a brave – or colossally talented – woman who steps up to the mic and takes on Nina Simone on stage. And Josette Bushell-Mingo’s one-woman riff on ‘Nina’, her music and why it matters, proves she has both those qualities.
Bushell-Mingo has lungs that could raise the dead. When, towards the end of the show, she really lets rip with ‘Sinnerman’ (‘So I ran to the Devil/He was waiting’), it’s an electric storm of a performance. Fans who never had a chance to see Simone herself had better run to the Young Vic before this ends on July 29.
You’ll go for the music but leave with the politics reverberating in your head. This absolutely isn’t a jukebox nostalgia piece. It’s a fierce, personal, uncomfortable meditation which asks, among many things, why we are right now still having to say that Black Lives Matter. At its best it recharges Simone’s famous songs with ire and immediacy: like when Bushell-Mingo explains that saying ‘goddamn’ then was like saying ‘fuck’ now, then sings ‘Mississippi Goddam’ with the force to prove it. On the downside, it all feels ragged and improvised; a loose, jazzy mash-up of two female performers, two civil rights movements, two moments with too much in common. That’s a bit frustrating. There’s a whole lot of power, rage and glory in this music and these questions – maybe a bit too much for a 90-minute devised show with a small (but excellent) backing band.
Bushell-Mingo is an Olivier-nominated musical actress and I personally would love to see this get scripted and developed into a full-length, full-cast, full-throttle musical drama for the West End or Broadway, where it could make a bigger, broader audience shake and shiver and walk out saying ‘Goddamn’.