Apphia Campbell’s one woman show was inspired by the life of jazz and soul singer Nina Simone, probably most well known for her popular hits “Ain’t Got No… I got Life” and “My Baby Don’t Care for Me”. It tells the story of singer Mena Bordeaux from her early childhood growing up in a black family in the racially segregated USA of the ‘50s through to her involvement with the Civil Rights movement in the ‘60s and her prolific career as a singer/songwriter in the ‘70s and beyond. Following the death of her beloved father, Mena takes the opportunity to reflect back on her life and the key defining moments which shaped her.
Using a mix of flashback, song and soundtrack of actual events, Campbell transports us into her memories. As a child, all she can remember is music – Mamma singing in the kitchen while she cooked, gospel music at church, playing the piano at the age of three. Her first awareness of racial discrimination came when she performed at her first concert and her parents were not allowed to sit in the audience to watch her. Rejected from music college because of her colour, she takes a job in an Atlantic City club playing the “devil’s music” as her mother calls it. She rejects home town first love Eddie to pursue a career in music and endures a violent and abusive marriage with Arthur. Her songs become the anthems of the Civil Rights movement and she fights tirelessly for freedom for her fellows until she finally becomes free herself.
Campbell has an expressive and powerful voice and her renditions of Simone’s songs are sublime. “ I Put a Spell on You” and “Feeling Good” are every bit as good as the originals and that is saying something. In her day job, Campbell is a singer based in Shanghai, and a founder member of Spotlight Theatre Company. She has performed the play in New York and Shanghai and would ultimately like to bring it to the screen. There is definitely good screenplay material here so good luck to her in that endeavour. In the meantime, this is a show worth catching.