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Interview: LAIONA MICHELLE of LITTLE GIRL BLUE: THE NINA SIMONE MUSICAL at Goodspeed Opera House

It was "a labor of love" for Michelle, who wrote it after being frustrated about not getting the kind of challenging roles she sought.

Interview: LAIONA MICHELLE of LITTLE GIRL BLUE: THE NINA SIMONE MUSICAL at Goodspeed Opera House

Little Girl Blue: The Nina Simone Musical, which made its world premiere at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, New Jersey two and half years ago, is again taking audiences by storm in bucolic Connecticut at Goodspeed by the River.

The show stars Laiona Michelle who wrote and conceived it. It was workshopped for only a year before it was produced at the George Street Playhouse, where it broke box office records and was extended multiple times. It was "a labor of love" for Michelle, who wrote it after being frustrated about not getting the kind of challenging roles she sought. A graduate of Alabama State University and Brandeis University, she honed her acting skills at the Goodspeed, Westport Country Playhouse, Arena Stage, Colorado Shakespeare Festival, Alabama Shakespeare Festival, The Woolly Mammoth Theatre, and other venues. She was in the first national tour of The Book of Mormon and appeared on Broadway in Amazing Grace, a show she had done at the Goodspeed Opera House. She had written children's plays for the Shakers Performing Arts Camp in her hometown of Springfield, MA. Michelle was also nominated for numerous awards including the NAACP Hollywood Award, Helen Hayes Award, and Barrymore and Carbonnell Awards.

Michelle's manager suggested that she write her own material and she wrote about Nina Simone because she was always drawn to her. She grew up listening to her music, but as she learned more about the legendary artist, she realized that there was ample material for a show.

Simone was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in 1933. Initially, she aspired to become a concert pianist, but she ended up singing and writing and arranging songs in a broad range of styles including classical, jazz, blues, folk, pop, gospel, and R&B. She also became a civil rights activist and got a reputation as an "angry black woman," notes Michelle. In addition to living through times of racial tension, Simone had problems controlling her temper and suffered from bi-polar disorder. Michelle was drawn to Simone's struggles and "her tremendous resilience [and] her ability to stand in the line of fire....It was never easy for her. She became who she was because of that."

Little Girl Blue started out as a one-woman show, but Michelle said she "found it to be terribly lonely on stage." She played "11 different characters out of Nina's imagination. It was quite a challenge...creating the illusion so that it can cast a spell not just over the audience but the players on the stage." As the play evolved through more workshops, she added three musicians. The two-hour, 10 minute show is "really exhausting in every way on stage....We're completely wiped out. Nina created her best work out of exhaustion. She was tired a lot." Michelle notes that there are very few black people in the audience at the Goodspeed Opera House, but the show is so strong and "everyone can identify with her." There are standing ovations every night.

Michelle notes that many black shows are written by white people. "It's important that we start writing our own," she says. With Little Girl Blue, "the shoes fit just right for me. It changed me as an artist and validated me in a lot of ways - as an actor, writer, foot soldier for my beliefs, [and] as an African American artist."

She credits director Devanand Janki for his "crystal clear" vision, Rashad V. Chambers, lead producer, and Mark Feiffer, musical arranger and director. She was also inspired by Amazing Grace's writer, Christopher Smith, a former police officer who "came into this industry and shopped his musical around....I was blown away by that." That encouraged her to work harder as a writer and to produce her own material.

Michelle is also the book writer of Mandela: The Musical. She is working with Greg and Shawn Borowsky on the show, which is headed to the Young Vic in London in 2022. Recently, she also accepted the position of artistic associate at the George Street Playhouse.

Little Girl Blue runs through August 29. For tickets, visit www.goodspeed.org. Follow Michelle on Instagram @laionamichelle.

Photo by Diane Sobolewski.




From This Author - Sherry Shameer Cohen

Sherry Shameer Cohen is an award winning parachute journalist and blogger who is always looking for more challenging work. Her articles and photos have appeared in Connecticut Magazine, Greenwich Magazine,... (read more about this author)


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