National Theatre teams up with Unity for show starring Josette Bushell-Mingo OBE

THE life of legendary African American singer-songwriter Nina Simone is to be celebrated in a world premiere theatre production here in Liverpool.

Nina - a Story about Me and Nina Simone, is a co-production between the National Theatre and Liverpool's Unity Theatre where it opens in October for a two-week run.

It stars Olivier Award-nominated actress Josette Bushell-Mingo OBE, who will be returning to the UK for the first time in over a decade.  

A consummate musical storyteller, pianist and civil rights activist, Simone died in 2003 at the age of 70. She is best known for tracks like Put A Spell On You and My Baby Just Cares, which became a smash hit in the 1980s, decades after its original release.

But the volatile, bipolar performer, who once pulled a gun on a shoe shop assistant in a row over a pair of sandals left a legacy of songs dealing in love, loss and social liberation through genres spanning pop to R&B and classical.

"Nina - a Story about Me and Nina Simone will be a hybrid of theatre and concert; backed up with a band of extraordinary musicians," says the Unity.

Nina Simone

"Rage, love, doubt and fear in a world where racism and the charge for civil rights still passionately’s a tale with all the ingredients of a blockbuster, yet one that retains a strong element of humanity and compassion."

It's a deeply personal take for Bushell-Mingo, who says she is proud and delighted to be opening the show in Liverpool "a city that I love".

The actress/director and activist, who has worked in Sweden for the last 10 years and is currently artistic director of  The Swedish National Touring Theatre, explains that this is a performance piece about both her and Simone. Through text, music and song, we take part in the two women’s hopes, dreams, sorrows and success.

"It’s about the journey from oppression to freedom; it’s a journey that still, after all these years, isn’t over," she says.

"I have come to a point in my life where the increasing deaths of black men and women in police custody, openly racist and xenophobic rhetoric, and the apparent institutional racist attitudes of governments and key institutions made me question how far we must go to truly gain our freedom.  This lead to me questioning the artist’s role in commenting on major historical events.

She added: "Upon asking these questions I re-connected with Nina Simone. Not Billie Holliday, not Sarah Vaughan, not Aretha Franklin but Nina. Nina Simone. I connected with all of her; Nina’s blackness, Nina’s voice, her pain, her artistic courage and her music. I came to the conclusion that if the world was losing its way then Nina Simone is the Sat Nav back home." 

Josette Bushell-Mingo OBE

During her lifetime, Simone's career went steeply down when she took a stand for civil rights and Black Power in 1960s America. The show asks what has changed since then? and takes a journey from 1964 – when hope was strong and the American civil rights movement was at its peak – to present time when exclusion of black people is a frightening reality.

Bushell-Mingo won an Olivier award nomination in 1999 for her role as Rafiki in The Lion King Musical and remains artistic director of Push, an organisation set up for the promotion and development of Black British theatre.

She says: "When I began the artistc process for Nina, I thought that the piece was going to be about my relationship with Nina. I have found that it is much more than that. The production is about our relationship to each other, through the prism of blackness. (It) celebrates how Nina changed the world and in turn, changed us all. 

"I’m proud and delighted to be opening Nina at Unity Theatre this October. Unity Theatre was one of my first homes, in a city that I love.”   

Nina - A Story About Me And Nina Simone runs from 15-29 October at the Unity Theatre. Tickets from £15, here