Sweaty bodies suffering in the scorching heat to commotions of a lively festival-like scene – these are essentials of a Nina Simone performance as the dynamic singer and actress Josette Bushell-Mingo would have you see it.
Bushell-Mingo paced back and forth on the Bing Theatre stage, urging everyone to clap or shout along to her narration. Within the first ten minutes of the Jan. 15 Visions & Voices performance, “Nina–A Story about Me and Nina Simone,” Bushell-Mingo enthralled with an energy that blazed with confrontational anger.
Directed by Bushell-Mingo and Dritero Kasapi, the show’s conceit was that Bushell-Mingo would perform a Nina Simone concert, not as Simone, the late activist and legendary singer, but herself.
Bushell-Mingo cued the musicians to play and for the lights to cast on her. Pianist Shapor Bastansiar set the melody as Conor Malloy joined in with the drums and Baltazar Montoya with the bass. Just as she prepared to sing Nina Simone’s song “Revolution,” she called off the act. The audience lights are brought back up and Bushell-Mingo abruptly changed her stage persona.
“Revolution,” she remarks, “means to turn. Trouble is, it can be in a circle.” Bushell-Mingo used this nuance to explain how the path towards civil rights for people of color seems to have come around in a full circle. She couldn’t bear to sing about revolution when there is none.
Bushell-Mingo elaborated on the murder of a 17-year-old boy, who was shot 16 times in 13 seconds. Using the heel of her shoe, Bushell-Mingo stomped the stage floor to mimic the sounds of gunfire. But the bullets keep coming.
Then she told the story of Simone, whose parents were denied front row seats for their daughter’s performance, and how she watched as their heads bowed in shame. People of color, all across the country, suffer countless assaults and bullet wounds, Bushell-Mingo reminded us.
Bushell-Mingo then shared her own personal hardships and the beauty and strength of black culture. She switched between being herself and adopting a form of Nina Simone, and in the process, looped her performance back to a concert setting.
With the final cheers of a standing ovation, Bushell-Mingo’s powerful performance left the audience with a fuller understanding of black culture and a series of provoking questions. To this day, people still struggle to gain social equity, which begs the question, when can society ensure equal rights for all people? After watching Bushell-Mingo’s performance, I found myself thinking about why social injustice still exists in modern society and felt inspired to instigate change in how society reacts to cultural differences.