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To be young, gifted and black
By Donald MacPhail

SHANGHAI might not seem the obvious place to debut a one-woman show inspired by the life story of American music legend Nina Simone.

But it makes perfect sense to Apphia Campbell, writer and star of "Black Is the Color of My Voice," which has its world premiere tonight at Shanghai's Anken Green Rooftop on Huai'an Road.

The 29-year-old from Sarasota in Florida became fascinated by Simone's work and life while studying theater performance at Florida International University in Miami.

Singer, pianist and civil rights activist Simone's eclectic catalogue ranges from the uplifting "Feeling Good" and the jaunty "My Baby Just Cares for Me," to the haunting "Plain Gold Ring" and the searing "Mississippi Goddam."

While she wanted to write a show, at the time, Campbell felt she didn't have the life experience to carry it off.

So three years ago, the singer, actress and dancer moved to Shanghai. Here she works full-time as a singer.

"When I heard 'Plain Gold Ring,' I was just amazed; there was so much emotion. And the more I listened to Nina Simone's music and the more I learned about her, the more I wanted to write a show," explains Campbell, taking a break from last-minute rehearsals.

"There's so much in her music and her life. She was someone who had personal troubles but used them in her work and philosophy," she says.

Complicated figure

"At the time, I didn't have enough life experience to do a story like that, so I came to Shanghai. I've lived here for three years and traveled a bit too, and now feel ready to do this show."

A complicated figure, Simone, who died in 2003 at age 70, lived in three continents in the course of her life and was known for her aloof, sometimes volatile, personality.

Campbell believes the cosmopolitan Simone would have felt at home in Shanghai.

"She liked places where people appreciated her music and liked to learn about other cultures - for example, she spoke several languages - and other kinds of music, so I think she'd have liked Shanghai," Campbell says.

Presented by new Shanghai theater company Play the Spotlight, "Black Is the Color of My Voice" recounts American singer Mena's personal and artistic journey, featuring music in the style of Simone and fellow icons Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald.

After the death of her father, Mena falls into a deep depression. To cope, she seeks the help of a witch doctor who orders her to isolate herself in a room for three days.

She explores her life, and is propelled forward by the music to seek the peace she desires.

After an eight-day run in Shanghai, the play is being taken to New York where it will feature in the Midtown International Theater Festival.

For now though, Campbell is just raring to go.

"Two months of rehearsals have gone really well and now I'm really excited about taking the show to an audience," she says.

Dates: May 23-26, May 30-June 2, 8pm

Tickets: 150 yuan (US$24.45) at Big Bamboo locations, 180 at the door

Address: Anken Green Rooftop, 668 Huai'an Rd (near Suzhou Creek)

Customer Service: (86-21) 52920164