-By Doc Lawrence-
I came close to meeting Nina Simone who performed in Atlanta for the Atlanta Jazz festival, at Morehouse College and at Chastain three years before her death. That emptiness was finally filled while I, along with a packed house, was immersed in the timely and powerful musical, Simply Simone at Atlanta’s Theatrical Outfit. With 32 songs performed by four very gifted women portraying Nina Simone from her childhood in Tryon, North Carolina to her performances in Carnegie Hall, foreign countries, jazz clubs and the Newport Jazz Festival, we were treated to a tour de force of much of America’s greatest music.
A complex and passionate Nina told the world that she was not a diva, but The Diva. There are four talented actresses portraying Ms. Simone at different stages of her life: Marliss Amiea, Tina Fears, Chani Maisonet and Chelsea Reynolds. The musical review kicks off with the double entrendre-loaded I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl followed by My Baby Just Cares for Me, and then Simone’s best-known song and her first hit recording, the heart-wrenching I Loves You Porgy from Porgy and Bess. And the show was just beginning.
|Chani Maisonet as Nina|
Nina Simone’s skills as a pianist helped propel her journey from a North Carolina high school to the Julliard School of Music in New York City and later to an audition for the prestigious Curtis Institute where she was rejected for displaying too much emotion, stinging words of prejudice that inflicted emotional injury to the 17 year-old prodigy. Always defiant, Ms. Simone’s Young, Gifted and Black, another hit recording addresses self-confidence despite rejection and ensuing pain, and stirringly introduces a showcase of her determined plunge into music, singing and playing the blues, jazz, gospel and her signature protest songs.
The 1963 bombing of a black church that killed four girls in Birmingham, Alabama, an event that placed Ms. Simone’s voice and star power behind the civil rights movement is described in agonizing detail. The bone-chilling and very provocative Mississippi Goddam, Simone’s response to Birmingham and the murder of Medgar Evers that same year, explodes just before intermission, allowing time to catch a breath and recover some needed equilibrium.
Love me or Leave Me wasn’t composed for Ms. Simone, but when she performed it at the Newport Jazz Festive with a never-to-be equaled piano solo incorporating Mozart and Bach-style counterpoint, the recording stands today as a testament of her capacity to love deeply and never forgive an injury. There is pain on the stage but there triumphant moments of joy as well. Nina Simone was a versatile, virtuoso musician, an American original and a ferociously independent woman.
Beyond the music (the band is flawless), Simply Simone makes the case for the arts in Atlanta, particularly outstanding companies like Theatrical Outfit. On this day, the audience through the auspices of song and dance visited a little girl and a magnificent woman named Nina who expanded the reach of jazz and much of popular music, never hesitating to use her voice as a vehicle for change.
The show leaves the audience dancing and clapping. Nina could express hurt, but she also knew how to stir the spirit.
Artwork by BreeAnne Clowdus
Photography by Christopher Bartelski