In the Edinburgh International Conference Center, Apphia Campbell stands on a small stage adorned with furniture evocative of a simple hotel room. For 70 minutes, the Fringe First winner embodies the iconic musical artist Nina Simone in Black is the Color of My Voice, taking audiences through a single weekend in Simone’s life. Written and performed by Campbell, the solo show plays the Edinburgh Festival Fringe at Pleasance at EICC’s Cromdale Theatre with performances to be held August 11-16 and 18-20. It previously sold out in London and toured the U.K.
In the work, Campbell brings to life a particular weekend in Simone’s life during which she attempts to connect with her late father. The performer interweaves reflections on Simone’s life with the music she created in a thought experiment about what may have happened during this pivotal moment of transformation. Campbell discusses discovering Simone’s work, travelling abroad to gain the experience to write the piece, and being inspired by Simone’s bold honesty.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Apphia Campbell: I was born in Florida in the States. I got my Bachelor of Fine Arts at FIU in Miami. After that, I moved to New York, and was doing auditions, but I always knew I wanted to write this piece. In 2009, I got a job teaching drama at an art school in Shanghai. That’s where I ended up writing Black is the Color of My Voice. I produced it there first. Around the time, I was looking at leaving Shanghai. I was like, “Oh, I'll write this piece. Hopefully, I can tour it or do something with it when I leave." I brought it to the festival, and it did really well. The first year, I met a producer, I met my now husband, and I've been touring it ever since.
What was the first spark of writing this piece?
I learned about Simone when I was about 18. For my senior year, we all had to write one-person shows, and my friend was like, “Why don't you write about Nina Simone?” And I was like, “Well, who is Nina Simone?” I just started listening to her music, really just fell in love with her as a woman. There’s a kind of mystery around her, and people talked about this eccentric side of her. But I really wanted to get to know the woman behind the music.
How did you approach writing it?
Since she spent so much time abroad, I was like, “Oh, maybe I should do that, too.” I was about four years into living in Shanghai when I wrote the piece there. That gave me a lot of context to understand her life experiences and the ability to empathize with that journey, with her. If you see my copy of her autobiography, there’s so much underlining, I don't know how many times I read it. There's a biography about her, but it kind of contradicts everything in her autobiography. I decided to focus on her own words. I thought she was really clear about her life. I watched a lot of YouTube videos and I kind of read between the lines. And anytime anybody spoke about her, I’d listen to the stories. Whenever I said I wanted to do this piece about her, everybody had a story to share.
The show’s story is framed by this weekend Simone took to conduct a ritualized reflection. How did you develop that device?
In her autobiography, she briefly talks about this experience and how it was transformative for her at that point in her life…She and her father were really close. The first half of her autobiography is her relationship with her family and, especially, her father. And they had a big fight, and I juxtapose it to her life with her husband and how that relationship deteriorated, and the things that he did to her. I think about what her father represented to her as a man and as a father, how close they were, and what it was like to not see him before he died, to not have that resolution. It was something that really affected her. For me, it was a really emotional moment in her life, but also a transformative moment, to have that ritual. She said that after it, she felt like he was always with her.
What’s something about Simone that particularly inspires you?
The thing I’ve always wanted to live in this piece is in the truth of it and the honesty. And that's what I always really admired about her, her conviction, and the fact that what she believed in, she didn't care about the repercussions. She didn't care about the repercussions of writing protest songs or getting onstage and saying something controversial, and I admire that bravery, because one of her quotes is “Freedom is no fear.” I always take that with me as well, being brave in my work, and trying to be honest and free in the things that I do. I hope that I can conjure that spirit.