Anyone expecting a jukebox musical will be in for a real shock. Nina is not the story of musical luminary and civil rights activist Nina Simone, and despite the subtitle – “a story about me and Nina Simone” – it’s not really about the imagined relationship between the singer and creator-performer Josette Bushell-Mingo. It is an uneven mix of history, autobiography, forced audience participation, social commentary, and righteous anger about the plight of black people in the face of white racism.
Bushell-Mingo, Olivier-nominated for her portrayal of Rafiki in The Lion King, has considerable stage presence. Her interactions with the on-stage three-piece band are endearing, and when she does eventually perform as Simone she captures some of the magic. But as she is about to launch into Revolution she stops, noting that there has been no revolution, and instead dives headlong into a painful, personal examination of the ongoing ill effects of inequality and racism.
Being asked to participate in a thought experiment, albeit one inspired by an interview with Simone, where the performer asks you to stay with her as she describes in detail how she would kill all of the white members of the audience, even turning up the house lights to painstakingly pick out the faces of the lucky few who “look foreign” enough to go free, is a deliberately uncomfortable experience.
The intention is to educate and vent frustration as well as entertain, but the balance is off. An hour of agitprop followed by about 25 minutes of Simone’s greatest hits felt lopsided. Simone’s work was unmistakeably political, but it was a steel fist in a velvet glove. This is a lead pipe.