Home » London Theatre Reviews » Black is the Color of My Voice – Stratford East | Review

Black is the Color of My Voice – Stratford East | Review

This play with songs provides a fascinating insight into the civil rights movement in the United States. While covering the major milestones of the era, it is a deeply personal story, tracking Mena Bordeaux (Apphia Campbell) from her formative years to her career as a singer. One of the many fascinating stories is about her putting her proverbial foot down at an entertainment venue, saying she wouldn’t perform if members of her family in the audience were to continue to be treated harshly (they were asked to move from their front and centre seats, which invariably brings to mind Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott). But her mother, more than anything, was embarrassed by her (that is, Mena’s) outburst.

Apphia Campbell in Black is the Color of My Voice. Photo credit: Geraint Lewis
Apphia Campbell in Black is the Color of My Voice. Photo credit: Geraint Lewis

It’s a good example of the imponderables and dilemmas Mena (technically, a fictitious character) would have faced at the time. Something in her knows she should pick her battles, but which ones to pick? Her thought processes and emotions become somewhat discombobulated in the immediate aftermath of the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King Jr in 1968. Her mother, a staunch evangelical Christian, evidently influenced her style of singing, and the narrative is punctuated with lively church hymns and choruses.

Her mother’s religious pronouncements seem to resonate strongly with some of the audience members at the performance I attended, even if they were broad brushstrokes about not falling into sin (whatever that meant) and taking the Scripture verse “Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord” quite literally by bursting into a gospel number in public. Combine this with the civil rights struggles, and there’s a very wide range of human emotions in a one-act show.

Campbell’s Mena sings beautifully, with such precision, nuance and control: it’s loud when it needs to be, but it’s never hammy. A note in the programme talks about capturing “Nina Simone’s spirit… without the expectation of impersonation”. It also allows for creative licence in the narrative without fact-checkers forensically questioning assertions made in the show. Hard-hitting in more ways than one, there’s the kind of resilience and strength through adversity that one might reasonably expect from a character living in what the 1968 Kerner Report (which sold more copies than the 1964 Warren Report, about the assassination of President John F Kennedy), about race riots, essentially described as a racist society.

There’s a lot of injustice in this well-considered story – for instance, her application to study at a college of her preference was rejected by the admissions department (no prizes for guessing why), and yet, as Leonard Cohen used to say, “cheerfulness kept breaking through”. I saw this show in a considerably smaller venue in 2019, and on balance it better suits more intimate spaces – the Stratford East stage felt a little too big for the fairly minimalist set. Passionate, enthusiastic and inspiring, the mixture of songs and spoken word is seamless and intricate, and the evening drew to a close with a standing ovation well deserved.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Apphia Campbell’s acclaimed play follows a successful singer and civil rights activist as she seeks redemption after the untimely death of her father. She reflects on the journey that took her from a young piano prodigy destined for a life in the service of the church, to a renowned jazz vocalist at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement. Inspired by the life of Nina Simone and featuring many of her most iconic songs performed live.

Black Is The Color Of My Voice is touring the UK and Australia in 2024 after sell-out seasons in Adelaide, Shanghai, New York, Edinburgh and London’s West End. Accolades include a Pick of the Week award at Adelaide Fringe when the show premiered there in 2023 and again in 2024, when it also won the overall Best Theatre & Physical Theatre Award.

Stratford East
11 to 15 June 2024, then at Edinburgh Fringe 2024, and additional UK tour dates


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