Apphia Campbell’s story mirrors famous jazz singer Nina Simone’s. Neither started out as a singer. Simone wanted to be a concert pianist, and Campbell wanted to be an actress. But singing became a necessary career for both.
Campbell, as a founding member of Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, last performed in Sarasota nearly 10 years ago. She made her return to the theater June 10, when she opened the one-woman show she wrote loosely based on Simone’s life, “Black Is The Color Of My Voice.”
This musical production takes place during the three days Mena Bordeaux, the character Campbell based on Simone, spends in Liberia to cope with the loss of her father. It’s a plot pulled straight from Simone’s life.
Bordeaux’s father dies before they reconcile from a fight they had a year prior. Per a witch doctor’s recommendation, she takes a three-day sabbatical with no smoking, drinking or talking to anyone as a way to heal from the guilt. There’s a handful of popular Simone songs interspersed throughout, such as: “I Put a Spell on You,” “Sea Lion Woman,” and “The Look of Love.”
“I think I connect a little more with her because maybe I see myself in (her story),” Campbell says.
Simone eventually moved abroad to France and Liberia. Campbell has a similar story.
“I realized I didn’t have enough experience to go write about something or convey the type of experience Nina Simone had, and then I just kind of found myself on the same path,” she says.
For the past five years, Campbell has been living in Shanghai and working as a singer-actress-producer-writer. In fact, she self-produced “Black Is The Color Of My Voice” there and saw a sold-out (nearly 130-seat house) eight-day run.
Shanghai is full of people from around the world, and a lot of people speak English there. Campbell has developed a following — she even gets recognized on the street.
Prior to Shanghai, Campbell lived for four years in New York, where, she says, “If you don’t sing, you don’t work.” She was looking for a sense of direction when she got a job teaching arts in Shanghai. The school went out of business after a year. As a backup plan, she started playing gigs at local bars, restaurants and venues. On the side, she acted and started a small theater company, “Play the Spotlight,” which has produced a few of the productions she has written.
Campbell is happy to return home to share her newest production with the same audience who saw her get her start.
Following this run, she’ll head to the largest arts festival in the world, Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Campbell’s production is one of 3,000-plus shows being produced — hers was one of the few to be spotlighted.
Campbell certainly found the experience she was looking for abroad; she found her voice.
“I feel like my journey is kind of complete,” she says. “It’s kind of interesting because I’m wondering myself, ‘Where I’m going to go next?’ There’s always a new adventure.”
IF YOU GO
‘Black Is The Color Of My Voice’
When: Runs through June 22
Where: Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, 1646 10th Way
Cost: Tickets are $29.50
Info: Call 366-1505 or visit wbttsrq.org.