Nina Simone is not a spirit to evoke lightly while the source of her anger and dismay endures. Josette Bushell-Mingo understands and is rightfully consumed by this, offering a storming rendition of Mississippi Goddamn only when we respect its original context, and – more importantly – feel the wild heartbreak of its continued relevancy. Sixteen times her foot stomps upon the ground as she counts the bullets that killed unarmed black teenager Laquan McDonald from the gun of a Chicago policeman in 2014. Towns and cities that have played host to race crime are name-checked as Mississippi 1963 profoundly and painfully transforms into modern day London “goddamn” and Liverpool “goddamn”.
For the most part, Nina is not a pleasant nostalgia trip through pop songs past for a predominantly white audience, whose gaze is addressed in a provocative scenario later in the performance. Any outrage felt because of this ‘discrimination’ is a very effective result of putting the audience in the shoes of those oppressed outside of the theatre for the very same unjustifiable reason.
The joyful release of encore I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free is infinitely more potent and meaningful due to the sorrow and tension that preceded it, the majority of the audience rising to their feet, singing and smiling as Bushell-Mingo revels in the fact that she is not in Edinburgh to simply intimidate and vent, but to connect and speak of empowerment and equality.
Little Girl Blue, while enjoyable, is not a highlight – there is no way to re-capture the fire, tenderness and raw spontaneity of Simone in her referenced Live in Montreaux 1976 performance. Bushell-Mingo pays most effective tribute to her idol while delving into her own experiences of blackness – combining a towering stage presence with disarming fury, hurt and humour. Her raw physicality and sheer force of will dominate the room, and leave a lasting impression worthy of the name Nina.
Words: Fraser MacIntyre
Nina – A Story About Me and Nina Simone, Traverse Theatre, Aug 6-13, times vary