In her first solo show at the Fringe, ‘Black is the Color of My Voice’, Apphia Campbell takes on the role of Mena Bordeaux, a fictional jazz musician & civil rights activist, closely inspired by the life of Nina Simone. Fringebiscuit caught up with the multi-talented actor, writer & musician to ask about her inspirations and the challenges of bringing such a well-known figure to the stage.
Nina Simone is an incredible muse for this story. How did the process of creating this play come about?
Of course I fell in love with Nina Simone’s music and her voice. And I also fell in love with who she was as a person. She was so strong, resilient and just was really a voice during the civil rights movement. I started reading her biography and fell in love with everything she stood for. So, I wanted to write a story that could convey what I felt when I listened to her music, and also show her in a more sympathetic light as well. Everybody knew she was really eccentric but I don’t think people really knew the woman she was.
It’s hard enough to distill someone’s life into one hour. Nina Simone has such a complicated history, how did you begin to weave a narrative from it?
I always [began] with the music. I let the music guide me, and initially the story started off really long, and I wanted to get down to the most poignant moments in her life and focus on those, and make those the building blocks to her personality and who she was.
You began the show in Shanghai. How did that come about?
In 2009 I got a job offer to teach at a theatre school in Shanghai. I’d always wanted to live abroad, and it was a good time to leave. I also wanted to write this piece, but I felt I didn’t have enough life experience, so I decided to go. I never saw myself in China before, but when the opportunity came up, I thought, why not?
What was it like performing an English language show about an American artist in Shanghai? Were audiences responsive?
Oh, yeah. Shanghai has a huge ex-pat community. The play really took off there. The first weekend, I remember thinking, I hope we get 30 or 40 people and we had only set [the room] up for about 80 people. By the fourth day, we had 80 people, and by the next weekend we had to order extra chairs, as there were over 100 people who came out to see it. People really connected with it. I wanted to write something that was a universal story, so everyone could connect with some part of the story – the relationship with the father, the lost love, the abusive relationship, dealing with racism, etc.
Has the show changed a lot since you started it in Shanghai?
For the Fringe we cut it down – the show usually runs an hour and a half – which was hard, as a writer and a fan, because all the details seem important. It went through a couple editing phases, thanks to audience feedback, which was great. Shanghai has such a culturally diverse audience, who are always ready to talk to you.
Nina Simone was such a complicated person, who hasn’t had as many bio-pics, etc, as we would expect for someone so well known. Do you think that’s because of so many complicated aspects of her life – the domestic violence, her tangled relationship with the civil rights movement, perhaps?
Definitely. I thought she was a person with a lot of faces. When I was researching, I watched Youtube, I watched every documentary, I read her autobiography five times, and I realized that she was a really complex woman and tried to understand what motivated her, what pushed her, and tried to convey that.
In doing research, did you get a chance to speak to people who knew her?
Yes, whenever I told people I was writing this play, I found people would tell me stories about her, and some of those I incorporated into my own character study. Everybody had a story to tell – “one time she came on the stage with shopping bags”, etc. It was interesting to hear these different tidbits about her from other people and try and incorporate them into the story.
What is it like coming to material that is so well-known, knowing that every audience member has a very distinct idea of what Nina Simone’s voice sounds like. How do you approach that – ignore the recording, and do your own take, or keep in mind the expectation?
I do keep in mind the expectation but I don’t try to mimic her voice. Nina Simone’s voice is very distinct and in the end, I think it takes away from what I’m trying to do, which is show another side of her as a woman. If the audience is focused on my voice not sounding like hers, then they’re not paying attention to the story. So it was about capturing the essence of who she was. Initially, I wrote the play as a biography, but as I boiled it down, I decided to change the name, change various details and locations. It helped me interpret the story more as an artist and feel the freedom to explore the songs as a singer and find the truth in it for me.
When creating the show, were there any aspects that surprised you in your research or in how the show ended up?
It’s definitely not what I envisioned in the beginning. I think it definitely took a turn for the better. I remember the second or third draft, we were in rehearsals and I was like, ‘this is not working’.
It’s always good to have that in rehearsal. As long as you aren’t on stage…
Exactly. It just didn’t dawn on me – as a writer and actor there are different aspects that you’re trying to get out when doing research, there are two different paths, and I thought it wasn’t written well enough for me to find different nuances. So, I went away for the weekend, and I’d told my team “I think I’m gonna cancel the show, it’s gonna suck,” and they said, “Take the weekend”. And over that weekend I started thinking about how we remember things and what are the triggers. I woke up Sunday morning and a light came on, and I went and edited down the first half, and then the second half a few days later.
Nina Simone is getting her own movie – are you looking forward to that?
I don’t know, there’s so much controversy around it. I wasn’t excited about the casting – I love Zoe Saldana, she’s amazing – but she doesn’t look like her, and it sort of goes against everything Nina Simone stood for, to take a woman that stood up for black pride and paint the person playing her darker and give her a prosthetic nose. Nina Simone wanted Whoopi Goldberg to play her. I’m still not sure how you get from Whoopi to Zoe Saldana.
Nina Simone was criticized for leaving the United States during the civil rights movement. How do you approach that controversial topic?
There comes a point in your life when you think, I’ve done all I can do and that’s how I took [that decision]. People were being killed, others were leaving the movement and she felt abandoned. Audience members at her concerts would tell her they were sick of hearing about [the movement] and she still felt passionate about it. Not every celebrity was using their platform for the cause the way she was, and I think she felt abandoned and rejected because of this. In one interview, I heard her say, “If I could, I would go back in time and never sing protest songs. Protest songs ruined my career.” And I thought, Wow. This woman was the voice of the movement. Can you imagine if she hadn’t been there?
In a way, protest songs are what made her an icon.
Exactly. Nina never wanted to be a singer, she wanted to be a classical pianist. The [civil rights movement] is really when she came out of her shell. That was when she seemed to realize, my voice can do something. It isn’t in vain. So, to make a statement much later, saying she wished she hadn’t done that was difficult to understand.
When the audience leaves, do you want them to feel like they appreciate Nina in a different way?
I definitely want them to appreciate who she was as a woman. I feel really excited when people tell me, “I just went home [after the show] and downloaded her whole album.” I was so affected by her voice and thought someone that I feel so much empathy for has to have an interesting story. And it’s more than what people usually say, [which is] “she’s a little crazy”. I wanted people to walk away thinking, you know, everybody is complicated. At the end of the day, these artists are just people. You should take their art for what it is, and not make judgements on the outer person they put out there.Black is the Color of My Voice, Gilded Balloon, Aug 1-25