ED2014 Interviews ED2014 Theatre ED2014 Week0 Edition

Apphia Campbell: Voicing the inspiration of Simone

By | Published on Monday 21 July 2014


Inspired by the music and work of Nina Simone, and one particular event in the legendary singer’s life, Apphia Campbell conceived, wrote and performs ‘Black Is The Color Of My Voice’, a one woman show that combines music, history and an imagined recall of what Simone went through during a three-day ‘spiritual cleansing’.
Campbell premiered the show in Shanghai, and later performed it in New York, but now brings the work to the Edinburgh Fringe for a full Festival run at the Gilded Balloon. Ahead of that we spoke to Campbell about the conception of the show, how Simone’s life inspired the piece, and her preparations for the Edinburgh run.

CC: The show is “inspired by the life of Nina Simone”. What does that mean? Is the character you portray actually based on her life?
AC: The protagonist in the play is called Mena Bordeaux. I invented a new character so I could explore the story in the way I wanted to without being disrespectful to Nina Simone, or confusing people into thinking this piece is a biography, which it isn’t. But the story arises from a time when Simone was in Liberia following her father’s death. She was going through a rough period, and she consulted a faith healer who instructed her to undertake a spiritual cleansing ritual that involved isolating herself for three days. That ritual is the setting of the play. It’s absolutely a fictional account of what happened, but the background of the character and where and who this character is comes from Simone’s life.

CC: Where did the idea for the show come from?
AC: At the point when I decided to write ‘Black Is The Color’, I had read Simone’s autobiography about four or five times, and I always came back to the one part about the ritual in Liberia. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I found that such a compelling part of her history. And I kept coming back to the same question: “What did this woman do while she was stuck in a room for three days?” The question kept turning in my head and finally I said, “Okay, I want to explore this”.

CC: How is Simone’s music used?
AC: The music is used to add narrative context to the character as a musician and a performer. She goes through quite a transformation, and music is the thematic element taking her from one stage of her life to the next. It’s not just jazz by a long shot. Simone was a piano prodigy, and was heavily involved in the church, so the play includes Bach recordings and gospel pieces. As the play continues and Bordeaux finds solace in jazz, I sing several pieces that Simone made famous, either as a part of the character’s performance history or to add to the mood of the story. What I love about Simone’s music is how affected you feel by the end of the song, so my first priority was to capture that feeling by incorporating the music we use.

CC: Had you been a fan of Simone before you first read the autobiography? Did you do any additional research about her life when writing the play?
AC: Absolutely. When I first began listening to her music about ten years ago, something struck me and I needed to know more. As I said, I poured over her autobiography several times. And then I found every book, article, YouTube video, and documentary I could find. It was about a three-year research process, and in turn, a personal discovery, for me.

CC: Simone’s music will always live on, but do you think it’s important people also hear about her involvement in the civil rights movement?
AC: Heck yes! You can’t tell a story inspired by Simone and not talk about it; the play addresses her activism as a major part of her personal and professional development. You can’t listen to a song like ‘Mississippi Goddamn’ and not be blown away by the mind who would write a song like that. She was so fearless and grounded, and I think so much of that developed with her civil rights work.

CC: What’s it like writing AND performing a one woman play?
AC: Well, the writing and performing go hand-in-hand pretty well. Performing a play you wrote for yourself is amazing – you don’t have to “day job it” until the perfect part comes along. You can create it yourself and you can write to your strengths as a performer. It’s performing AND producing the show that’s a problem. When you’re performing and handling the business end of the show at the same time, it can get messy because you get emotionally involved in both jobs, but you can’t let one affect the other or your show will suffer. In past runs, people have asked me, “Hey, we have this problem. What do we do?” and it’s my job as producer to fix those problems, but I’m also in character, so I’m yelling or snapping just so I won’t drop character. I’ve had to apologise quite a few times!

CC: You debuted the show in Shanghai. Are audiences in China aware of Simone’s music, and/or the history of civil rights in the USA?
AC: Many local audiences didn’t really know who she was. To raise money for the Edinburgh run, we did a revue of jazz standards that Nina Simone popularised, and the venue manager did and still calls me Nina. I think it’s pretty funny! I don’t try to impersonate her voice, I’m definitely me as a singer, even in the play. But in the end, it was really fulfilling to introduce Shanghai audiences to this music and give them a bit of background into Black American history.

CC: You also performed the piece in New York, how did audiences differ there?
AC: The audiences in New York were a lot smaller and, of course, more aware of the history. One person in particular came up to me and said, “I thought I would hate it, but I really liked it. I thought it was different way to tell the story”. I just laughed and said, “Well, I’m an artist, I’m supposed to be creative”.

CC: You seem very keen to bring this show to the Edinburgh Fringe, why is that?
AC: The Edinburgh Fringe is the largest arts festival in the world! Of COURSE this is where I should bring my work! I want to reach a broader audience and this is certainly the place to do it.

CC: Has the show developed or changed since last year’s productions at all?
AC: For the Festival, we’ve had to shorten it due to time constraints. The original show ran at 1:20 and we have it down to an hour for Edinburgh, so we had to shorten it by a quarter. Editing for Edinburgh was brutal. I was talking to my Production Assistant, who’s a writing teacher by trade, about the cuts we needed to make, and she immediately responded with, “Oh, you need to cut this song and this part and this thing. They don’t move the story along. Murder your babies”. I was horrified. I kept saying, “Nooo! I really like that part! Can we put it back later?” I had to cut a lot of parts I really loved, but I’m finding that the editing process really made the play tighter. I’m looking forward to seeing how the edited version plays out during the Fringe, and if all goes well, I’ll be able to perform the full show to a larger audience after Edinburgh.

CC: What are your ambitions for the piece beyond Edinburgh?
AC: I would love to tour the show! I love London and would love the opportunity to put it up in a theatre there, or anywhere really. I’m not too picky. Telling this story wherever I can is my one priority.

CC: My favourite Nina Simone track is ‘Sinnerman’. What’s your favourite and why?
AC: Ah! I’m always asked this question and it stumps me every time. Last week I said ‘Plain Gold Ring’ but this week I’ve been listening to ‘Lil Liza Jane’ on repeat. It’s a folky tune and the rhythm sounds simple, but when I try to sing it I’m always thrown off. Yet, she sings it with such ease. It makes me happy; it really gets me dancing, and with all these Edinburgh Fringe nerves building up, I can really use all the excuses for stress-busting booty shaking I can get.

‘Black Is The Color Of My Voice’ was performed at the Gilded Balloon at Edinburgh Festival 2014.

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