I don’t know if you can put a primal scream to music but Josette Bushell-Mingo’s show, Nina – A Story about Me and Nina Simone has all the power of a holler against racism, whether it is in her native London or in Simone’s North Carolina or anywhere else in the world.
Bushell-Mingo comes from a “quite poor” West African family living in the East End of London where she saw performing in theatre as a way to release her imagination. Her parents however were not particularly literary, her father a bus driver, her mother a nurse.
“Mum came from Guyana where the English, French and Dutch had a strong influence – and I think when they came to England, they absorbed what they thought was of value and wealth,” she recalls as we chat in the Grand Central in Belfast.
“I remember coming home from college with Shakespeare and just saying ‘I can’t do it, I don’t understand it’. But she had studied Shakespeare at school.
“Acting gave me a voice and ideas, and introduced me to people regardless of my age, ethnicity or class. It was the great teachers who saw me, the white teachers, and said ‘that girl can run so fast and jumps so high, and she can write anything and is very funny on stage, and she’s really animated and she’s very smart – we think we can support her.”
And blossoming out of that initial support, Josette has since been earning plaudits both as a director and actor, including a 1999 Olivier Award nomination for her performance as Rafiki in The Lion King.
She is also the artistic director of Push, an organisation set up for the promotion and development of Black British Theatre but over 15 years ago, she moved to Sweden with husband Stefan Karsberg where she is the director for which produces work by and for deaf people.
Thankfully, Josette is coming to Belfast this week to examine the role Nina Simone through her songs in the struggle for civil rights.
“I don’t play Nina Simone – that’s very important – it’s not a sing-along-Nina,” she is quick to point out.
“What is important – certainly where my parents came from – is that we have something called Witness, which is something we don’t really do anymore.
“We help someone carry their story. You cannot change it. To witness is to listen and take the responsibility as a human being so that the burden on that person is slightly less,” she says.
As a person Josette likes to work out some of life’s most difficult questions by herself.
“For instance, I have studied what has happened since we were stolen from Africa to where we are today, the burning and lynching and rape and the structures such as the prison system or the drug system – many communities can identify with this in different ways.
“When you look at the Googles and the Youtubes or the National Front homepages – which I do – when you know this, what do you do with all of that? What do you do when you’ve tried and tried? What happens if you don’t have anyone and you open up Google to see photographs where slaves were fed to crocodiles? What do you do with that?” she asks.
I mention the photographs of black people hanging from trees with white men and women smiling around the grizzly scene, their smiles as disturbing as the distorted faces of the corpses.
I ask Josette if she thought it was her duty to understand those men and women?
“Absolutely. Love the question, although It’s become more and more difficult as the play has gone on. When I come back here I’ll be into my 100th performance. It’s become more and more difficult because of political times we are in, from Brexit to Trump, these things have fuelled – it causes me pain. Painful because I can’t do anything about it.”
And that is the point of the show. It is almost a cry for help from Josette who has been spat at and insulted as she was just walking down the street because of her colour.
“I could just do a great singalong of Nina, but what’s the point, or I can make sure that this work changes something and forces myself every night to tell an audience, ‘OK, what do I do with all of this – help me’.
“I don’t know where to go and I can articulate that but my concern is for those people who don’t give a damn about the theatre but who are out there, everyday, trying to survive.
“That’s where Witness comes in,” she says.
Josette Bushell-Mingo brings Nina – A Story about Me and Nina Simone to the MAC this Friday and Saturday as part of the Belfast International Arts Festival.
Tickets are available from: https://bit.ly/2CJWsxT