TBB Talks To… Creator Of Black Is The Color Of My Voice, Apphia Campbell

After sell-out seasons in Shanghai, New York, Edinburgh and the west end, the Fringe First award-winner Apphia Campbell brings her acclaimed play back to the stage.

Black Is The Colour Of My Voice is inspired by the life of Nina Simone, following the jazz singer and civil rights activist seeking redemption after the untimely death of her father and featuring many of her most iconic songs performed live. Written and directed by Apphia Campbell and performed by Florence Odumosu the show is currently on a national tour.

We spoke to Apphia about this powerful play the impact music has on her life and how she connects with audiences universally with her mesmerising storytelling…

Please introduce yourself…

My name is Apphia Campbell and I’m a theatre-maker, writer, singer, actress and the creator and original performer of Black Is The Color Of My Voice.

Please share a word or sentence which best describes your life right now…

In Flux I guess because things are shifting and moving and I’ve been trying to keep up.

Black Is The Color Of My Voice follows the life of Nina Simone why did you choose to tell her story?

I was really inspired by Nina Simone’s music and her journey as an activist and I wanted to highlight her personal journey as well. I wanted people to understand who she was. The woman behind the music. So I wanted to focus on that and, I guess, give some new meaning to her music as well.

Black is the Color of my Voice – Apphia Campbell – Image credit: Geraint Lewis

What Happened, Miss Simone? Was an amazing documentary about the singer’s life. Have you watched it and did you take any inspiration from it?

I did watch it and I agree it was an amazing documentary. I felt it was really affirming for me as a writer that the elements of her life I talked about in the show and the feelings that I felt that she had about certain things were confirmed by watching that. And the structure felt similar to what I was trying to do in my play. It confirmed to me what I had suspected about the relationship between her and Andy. That it was a relationship of violence. In her biography, she said he only hit her once but I thought that was a really interesting sentence when I read it. That something that was so violent wasn’t repeated. I guess I prayed that it wasn’t repeated so it did sadden me to see that she was living with that on a daily basis.

This is not the first time that you have toured this play you wrote it almost 10 years ago in 2013. What made you decide to tour again and have you made any changes to the piece?

You’re right, this is not the first time I’ve toured this piece. It’s been around for a long time and I feel that the story is still relevant and people still want to hear it so I thought ‘why not’. It’s great that we can keep telling her story and educating audiences about her journey. And hopefully, this will help her collect even more fans. Nothing has changed in the piece for several years. It has been the same piece because it works. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

You have taken on a directorial role this time with Florence Odumosu performing the piece. What differences does she bring to the performance? And is it hard seeing someone act out a role that you originally created for yourself?

I think that Flo brings her own energy to the piece and it’s a different energy than I bring. It’s been really exciting to see that my words can be interpreted differently. The way she sees the situation and how she finds her truth within the piece has been a wonderful journey: seeing how she discovers things within the play. Even for myself, as a writer/performer you don’t often see the whole picture because you have a certain idea that you want to convey. So it’s been really refreshing to see it through a different eye with the different take that Flo has. I was ready for the piece to move forward with someone new and I’ve really enjoyed it. I’ve loved sitting out in the audience and listening to other people talking about Flo’s beautiful performance. It’s a new experience for me and I’ve loved it.

Florence Odumosu – Black Is The Colour Of My Skin – Image Credit: Peter Dibdin

How did you go about selecting the songs that feature in the show? And what impact does the soundtrack have on the development of the performance from a young Nina to the Icon she became?

The songs were really important for me because I watched an interview with Nina Simone where she said that she always tried to set a mood in her concerts throughout her performances. So I had that in mind when I was creating the piece and there were moments when I really wanted to emphasise something that she was feeling or a moment in her life. So when I was listening to the music it was really about capturing that feeling that I wanted to convey in that moment. The music does progress and follows her journey from a child prodigy as you will see. You can see her being a bit timid at the beginning and trying to figure things out and then later on flourishing and becoming the icon that she is. So I hope that the music definitely reflects her journey in a way that the audience feels is truthful.

What Nina Simone song lives in your heart and why?

I have two songs that I go back and forth through. I love Sinner Man because I think it is like my Gospel roots. It’s such a musical journey and I’m quite visual when I listen to music and I see whole movies or pictures in my head. Even when I watch movies or television shows I’m always the person saying, ‘what’s that song?‘, ‘Oh, that’s a good song for that person in that moment.’ So when I turn on Sinner Man I see a western and this journey happening and her voice just takes you on this journey. It’s fast-paced and the rhythm of it puts me in a mood. I can use it to prep for work or I can use it to prep for the day. I guess it’s just my prep song to get me ready for something. So it’s a song that I love.

I also love Plain Gold Ring. I don’t know why I love that song so much but I think it is because the melody is haunting and hypnotic for me and I feel sad for the woman in the song. I think it reminds me of a time when I loved someone and it wasn’t a love that was right for me. So sometimes it’s nice to use those moments to reflect back on where you were and where you are now. So it’s a sentimental song for me.

In your previous interview with us, you shared that after performing the show in Shanghai you moved a woman to tears. What has it been like for you to create a piece that has spoken to audiences around the world and has even moved past language and cultural barriers?

I think as a writer and performer our goals are to move people and to get people a different perspective or worldview about something that they might think they know. And so it moves me to see that people still connect with this piece and are able to find something in it that really connects to their life. I am always searching for the truth in my performances and as a writer, I’m trying to find the truth in the characters that I’m writing and the truth in the story because it’s through that that people can really connect to what it is that you are trying to say. So it’s always affirming to know that there is something that connects with the audience and that connection transcends language.

One of my favourite stories was when I was living in Shanghai, I was shopping in this little shop and there was a woman there who didn’t speak English. Adele’s 21 album was on and she was singing Someone Like You. The woman didn’t know the words but she was mouthing along to the melody and mimicking the feeling and I was just watching her and could see that she felt the music. I felt that it was really beautiful that although she couldn’t understand what Adele was singing she could still understand the feeling. I hope that all art transcends language in that way so people can get to the truth and understand it.

Black is the Color of my Voice – Apphia Campbell – Image credit: Geraint Lewis

You have written and performed as powerful politically driven women Nina and Assata Shakur. If you had to look back in history and choose someone from the continent who would it be and how would you tell that story?

I’ve always wanted to write a story about Miriam Makeba. I’ve always loved her music and I started reading her autobiography and loved her journey. I guess it was because it’s not my culture and I don’t speak Xhosa and I’ve always wondered if I could ever sing that music and tell her story. She was also an inspiration to Nina Simone and it is also really interesting that she was living through Apartheid and was an activist as well. I guess I’m really interested in women who are activists.

I really love Miriam Makeba’s voice and sound. Again it is that voice that tells a story and takes you on a journey when you listen to her music. I’m not sure how I would tell her story but it’s a story of a woman who I feel really inspired by. So who knows.

You have solidified your performing and writing skills on stage. Do you have a desire to transition to screen and if so what would be your ideal role?

I guess anything Viola Davis does. I’m not coming for you Viola! I just love the kind of roles that she takes on. Anything that is a character piece and that I can sink my teeth into dramatically, emotionally and that has texture. I love being able to convey the dark and the light. I was really intoHandmaid’s Tale in the early seasons. Lately, I’ve also been watching a lot of comedy too. I think I would do better with dramatic roles though.

GETTING TO KNOW YOU…

A book you have to have in your collection?  One of my favourite books which I get really emotional about and that really touched me was Homegoing from Yaa Gyasi. I don’t know why but I always get really teary-eyed when I think about this book. I just loved that journey throughout the book and the final scene in it. I remember putting it down and really sobbing. It was a book that really moved me and a book that I often think about.

A song/album that defines the soundtrack of your life to date? That’s a tough one. Music for me shifts quite a bit. I’m open to a lot of music so I’m not sure if there is one particular soundtrack that I can think of that defines my life. I’ll need to think about that. To be continued…

A film/TV show that you can watch/have watched repeatedly? The Office. I think I’ve watched it so many times I can’t even count how many times. I probably know all the lines. It is a comfort for me. I can just drop into it any time. I really love it.

The first stage production you saw and what it meant to you (play, dance or concert)?  I remember seeing The Amen Corner (a play by James Baldwin) when I was about 12 or 13. I remember watching the woman playing Sister Margaret in the scene in which her husband dies and she has to leave there and go to give a sermon. She has all these personal issues but still has to have this public face and I remember being a kid and watching her and just being so moved saying ‘I want to do that.‘ So that’s what I’m doing. That performance moved me so much and solidified what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

What has made you sad, mad, and glad this week? Obviously, the invasion of Russia into the Ukraine has made me both sad and mad and it’s really hard to turn on the news right now. I have friends who have family there so that’s been really hard to watch this week.

Something that’s made me glad this week has been watching my son who got some new Hot Wheels tracks and he builds them around our living room. He loves to send his cars around the track and he gets so excited and jumps up and down. He loves it so it’s really made me glad seeing how happy he gets with his toys.


Black Is The Colour Of My Voice tours around the country until Saturday 2nd April

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