Sometimes you go into a play with expectations that are swept away by a cyclone of creativity that pleases and surprises you. I came into “Simply Simone” expecting a fun play with great songs, and I left behind a fantastic performance with so much grit and spirit that my friend beside me was misty-eyed.
The Black Theatre Troupe’s show, closing this weekend, celebrates iconic diva Nina Simone, whose musical reign sent her traveling across countries, genres and political lines.
“It’s her life story,” Music Director Brenda Hankins said. “She had an incredible journey, so this show shows four specific time periods of her life. It’s just chock full of stories.”
Before Nina Simone dazzled the world with her classical, jazzy style—and then shocked it with her bold political songs that empowered the Civil Rights Movement—she was known as Eunice Waymon.
“I like to do what I call ‘breaking up a block of black,’” Director Patdro Harris said. “This is just being very specific about the culture, how Nina Simone lived, not just what people thought, but, you know, the why. That’s what I love about ‘Simply Simone’—it gives the why she did what she did or why her life kinda went that direction.”
Harris said sometimes in plays, “they will place one black person in the show or just be very general … very non-specific about it, you know. I like to be very specific about it, and put real culture with it and show why we do what we do, and all those sort of things.”
The story unfolds chronologically, with young Eunice playing piano at her parents’ church, her feet too short to reach the pedals.
Actress Sharmaine King plays young Nina Simone, who represents Nina’s zest for life that persisted despite the world’s best attempts to squash it. Her bright smile and soft, sugary voice completely sells the childlike joy of Nina’s youth.
We learn how she applied for the Curtis Institute of Music, only to be turned down due to racism: as Nine One stands on the chair, the three other actresses swirl around her like vultures, crowing the admission officers’ excuses: that Nina’s music is too “passionate,” that it doesn’t meet their standards.
“Young, Gifted and Black” follows; it’s a passionate sequence that celebrates Nina’s unquenchable confidence in her talents and worth. The actresses’ voices join beautifully, and they march across the stage with moves that are graceful and sure.
“You know, I thought about Nina Simone, and she was a strong woman who experienced a lot of things in her life,” Hankins said. “She was independent. She was empowered. She was angry. She had to deal with racism and abuse. And these are all things that we see in today’s culture, some things that women experience still today. And in spite of it she was very successful and made fabulous music. She didn’t let it stop her.”
The playwrights’ choice to cast four different actresses to play Nina Simone in different parts of her life is a fascinating alternative to a one-person play. By using different performers, “Simply Simone” allows for fun choreography, a gorgeous diversity of voices, and subtle interactions that emphasize both internal conflict and self-love.
In a play about a woman who was defined by others’ prejudices, it’s a great, visual representation of the complex processes within a strong, colorful mind.
One of the harshest lessons Nina learned was the world refused to see her as she truly was.
“The Black Theatre is known for doing some very relevant pieces,” said Hankins, who noted that the Troupe picks “really excellent material to present to the community that showcases our local talent, which always amazes me. I always wonder, ‘Where do these talented people come from?’”
Later, Eunice took on the stage name Nina, shown in a smoky sequence where Kenyata Christina White’s Nina Two entrances jazz audiences with her skills.
At this point, I appreciated the production’s precision: White’s hands dangle in the air, but they move as though they were dancing across piano keys, and the live pianist in the background matches every twitch of her finger with perfect precision.
One marvelous sequence is “I Put a Spell on You,” in which Kylelahsay Draper’s Nina Three sings about her husband, Andy.
On paper, it’s a musical sequence in which Nina dances with a red hat. On stage, it’s electrifying. Draper gives an incredibly passionate performance; she completely sold me as a lovestruck woman through her anguished expression and dreamlike dance moves as she sings and throws around Andy’s crimson hat. Her voice soars so loudly it fills every inch of the room, all the way to the ceiling corners, and she laughs and sighs with such passion that the audience hangs onto her every note.
Yet perhaps the most remarkable song of the play takes place in “Strange Fruit,” led by White’s Nina Two, a heart-wrenching tribute to the four girls killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, an Alabama terrorist attack by the KKK.
One moment, the Ninas are singing and dancing, just as the girls were when they were in the church basement, then a loud noise flares, the lights fall, and the Ninas crumble like rag dolls. Dark, moody lighting matches with White’s haunting, raspy voice, which portrays not only heartbreak but also complete disillusionment is a stunning sequence. It’s breathtaking.
“This was the only play to ever have a standing ovation stop the show in the middle of a play in the 39 years I’ve been directing,” Harris said. This happened in an Atlanta show. “It was unbelievable.” There was a similar effect in Phoenix, though the play marched on without being completely halted.
Even if audience members enter the auditorium not knowing about Nina Simone, they’re sure to feel incredibly close by the time the last, beautiful song closes.
Director Patdro Harris probably has a head start on most people, though, as he met Simone in the late ’80s to early ’90s, when he went to a friend’s party. His friend just so happened to be Simone’s niece.
“It was wonderful,” he recalled. “It was Nina Simone! It’s like a famous person, you know, and so it is quite exciting. It’s my friend’s aunt, so… She turned into Aunt Nina versus Nina Simone cause we were not in a Nina Simone moment; we were in her niece’s party.”
Meeting Nina Simone and seeing her relaxed side helped Harris see her as more than just an accomplished artist. “When you get there, you have one kinda fantasy,” he said. “You can’t beat the imagination, but when imagination meets reality, sometimes we just let the air out of not knowing her as an artist but lifting her up as a person.”
This, in turn, allowed Harris to coach the actresses on how to see Simone as less of an unreachable diva and more of a relatable human being. “One of the challenges was just really trying to connect—getting the girls—the ladies, if you will, to connect with each one of those stories, to get an understanding what it’s that’s all about,” said Hankins. “Patdro Harris has done a fabulous job with just sitting and talking and relating stories and helping them to understand who Nina was, where she was in her life and then just weaving that all together. It’s been a wonderful process,” Hankins said.
The work pays off in spades as each actress delivers ardent performances that are in turns tender, angry and arresting. There’s also occasional humor, both in the script and unintentional–at one point, Jennifer Robinson’s Nina Four wears a hat to portray Simone’s friend Langston Hughes, and the hat falls off mid-sentence; Robinson plucks up the hat with smooth sureness, playing off of the smiles on her cast member’s faces to create a sweet moment that suggests the cast’s closeness.
Robinson’s voice is equal parts strong and soft, and she especially shines in “Papa, Can You Hear Me” and “Alone Again (Naturally),” two sad ballads whose lyrics alone tug at the heartstrings. In Robinson’s hands, they strum said heartstrings like a dextrous guitarist, becoming soulful and touching sequences that expose the vulnerability behind Simone’s polished diva exterior.
Hankins says despite Simone’s struggles, her story is still inspiring today.
“She suffered losses, but it didn’t stop her she just pushed forward,” she said. “But it’s a it’s just a great story of survival and overcoming great odds in dealing with the social and political climate that was in the country during her time in that we are still experiencing.”
It’s hard not to watch “Simply Simone” and wonder what she would say if she were alive today. Luckily, we have the next best thing—a wonderful, respectful performance celebrating every aspect of her character through brilliant songs and a talented team.
Simply Simone is playing Friday April 26 at 7:30 pm, Saturday at 2 pm and 7:30 pm respectively, and Sunday at 2:30 pm. Buy tickets here.
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