Edinburgh Festival Fringe: When Nina Simone was a little girl of 12, she refused to play at her first-ever piano concert for a “mixed” audience in North Carolina until her parents, who had been moved to make way for a white couple, were allowed to resume their seats in the front row.
Traverse Theatre (Venue 15)
Rage is the name of the story, in Josette Bushell-Mingo’s magnificent show about the mighty singer, musician and civil rights activist, co-produced by Unity Theatre and Riksteatern of Sweden; rage transfigured first by the sheer musical genius of Simone herself, and then by the almost shocking brilliance of Bushell-Mingo’s show about the meaning of Simone’s story for her as a black woman, but rage still simmering, unassuaged. As Bushell-Mingo says, “Nina forgave no-one.”
As the show opens, Bushell-Mingo and her fabulous three-piece band begin to conjure up the Nina of the late 1960s, at the height of the civil rights movement, singing Revolution while police helicopters swirl overhead. Yet like Simone at the end of that time, when the movement began to fragment, she also senses a despair that will not let her continue; and through angry riffs on the chronicle of slaughter and injustice that has been black history for so many centuries, right up to this shaming Black Lives Matter moment, she follows Simone’s journey from civil rights activism to a much more militant sense of the need for violent struggle, as she ranges across the audience, picking out the few black people who would be saved, if she were to turn the gun of unthinking racial violence back on us.
And then, when Bushell-Mingo decides at last that she can continue the concert, and returns shaven-headed, glittering, goddess-like to lead us through a tremendous set of Simone songs from Mississippi God Damn to You Know How I Feel, the sense of creative release and energy is electrifying, almost overpowering. The audience roars, the band nods, Bushell-Mingo smiles gloriously as she takes her bow; but the rage is still there, a creative powerhouse, a reminder, and a warning that grows louder every day.
Until 13 August. Today 10pm.