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Review: Nina at the Unity Theatre ****

March 21, 2018

When Nina – a story about me and Nina Simone (to give it its full title) was first devised, there were plans to stage it in the co-producing cities of Liverpool and Sweden.

But Josette Bushell-Mingo’s impassioned half-play, half-gig – inspired by the music and the civil rights activism of the late American singer – has gathered an unstoppable momentum which has carried it through sold-out runs in London and Edinburgh too.

Now, some 90 shows later, it’s back ‘home’ for one last hurrah, and evidently still striking a chord with audiences in a city which has wrestled with its own demons when it comes to race and identity.

Bushell-Mingo makes for a passionate advocate of why Black lives matter – as well as a passionate critic of a world where that phrase still needs to be used.

Simone made her stand in the American Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, and yet, as the actress and Unity patron points out with simmering rage, here we are more than half-a-century on still contemplating the inequalities that exist in society.

She interrupts bursts of songs to rattle out a pulsing litany of deaths, punctuated by the 16 police shots that felled Black teenager Laquan McDonald in Chicago in 2014, and spits out contempt for a religious narrative that eternally preaches forgiveness.

It seems Bushell-Mingo, channelling her inner Nina through an energetic narrative, is in fighting, not forgiving mood.

But there is a glimmer of warmth too, in memories of the quiet solidarity of community surrounding the passing of her mother.

Having worked through the simmering anger, the final third of the 80-minute show becomes the concert the audience is promised, but then seemingly denied, at the outset.

Songs synonymous with Simone – Gershwin’s I Love You, Porgy, Sinner Man, Ain’t Got No, I Got Life, and I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free – are performed with both power and a sense of euphoria.

Bushell-Mingo is accompanied on stage by piano, double bass and drums – the latter played for the remainder of the tour by the show’s original drummer Marque Gilmore who was flown in from Sweden as a last-minute replacement last night.

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