Review: SIMPLY SIMONE Is Anything But 'Simple' at The Ensemble Theatre

By: Jun. 30, 2017

On June 29, The Ensemble Theatre opened the final production for their celebratory 40th anniversary season with a bang, a belt, and a whole lotta sass! With its powerhouse vocalists, entertaining and sassy storytellers, and vast musical variation, SIMPLY SIMONE is anything but simple.

A musical revue written by Robert Neblett and David Grapes, SIMPLY SIMONE tells the story of southern diva and pianist prodigy turned jazz megastar, civil rights activist, and esteemed African American musical icon. In the social and political climate of her time, Nina Simone, known from birth as Eunice Waymon, challenged those who stood in her way as she broke down societal barriers and used her recognizably soulful and powerful voice to fight for "Young Gifted and Black" individuals and people of color in a time where segregation and racial violence were unmistakably apparent.

Before the performance began, a few members of The Ensemble Theatre briefly spoke about the treasured significance Nina Simone holds, saying that we all must speak and live our truth the way Nina did-with power, dignity, and strength. "There are some parts of the heart that only music can touch" said one member, and as expected, SIMPLY SIMONE sought out every corner of the audience members' hearts with the array of soulfully performed Nina favorites such as "To Be Young Gifted and Black", "I Love You Porgy", "The Look of Love", and "My Father", among many others.

SIMPLY SIMONE takes the audience on a winding musical journey from classical, gospel, and jazz to blues, rock n' roll, Broadway, and back. This production is no small undertaking for the four ladies who portray the "High Priestess of Soul", Miss Simone, as this performance is packed to the brim with as much music as the four talented divas can handle. SIMPLY SIMONE contains 32 total storytelling songs of joy and pain, acceptance and rejection, heartbreak and love, death and celebration of life, while telling the entirety of Nina's story with truth and heart.

The role of Nina was skillfully split into four roles portrayed by Samantha West (Nina One), Lakeisha Randle (Nina Two), Teacake Ferguson (Nina Three), and Rita Hughes (Nina Four). The linear structure of the revue calls for focus on certain parts of Nina's life as she matures, though the story was told in a fluid manner as each of the four roles contribute to explain the life of Eunice Waymon as she becomes Nina Simone. Oftentimes this called for one of the "Ninas" stepping in with a prop, character voice, or outward attitude in order to portray those characters not actually cast in the show, such as Nina's parents, her admired piano teacher, her sister Lucille, and her manager and lover Andy.

Samantha West (Nina One) acted as young Eunice Waymon with picture-perfect innocence and childlike naivety while bringing sweetly sung vocals to the performance. The audience watched Nina Two, portrayed by Lakeisha Randle in a classy--yet sassy--fashion as she moved from child prodigy to seasoned musical professional, starting by singing and playing piano in bars. Teacake Ferguson took the stage by storm with her mighty vocals and attitude--the perfect choice of actress to play the role of Nina Three, who had begun fighting for equality and using her voice for change and empowerment. Rita Hughes delighted in her more mature role as Nina Four as she navigated love, motherhood, death, and her relationship with her father with the same boldness and tenacity the audience had learned to expect from Nina . All four ladies wowed with their vocal strength and talent, especially when they were found blending together as one Nina in their seamless, reverberating harmonies.

Being a music heavy show, Musical Director Chicka Kaba Ma'atunde had no easy task, but with a live band onstage incorporated into the set pieces, the lively feel of music was present and executed with skill. The simplistic yet functional set, designed by Larry Wesley, allowed the actresses to move freely about the space while telling Nina's story in various locations and time periods. Lighting design by J. Mitchell Cronin acted complementary to the songs performed, setting the stage for any mood, emotion, or location the story called for.

Choreographed and directed by Patdro Harris, the four Ninas moved with fluidity and skill as they explored various styles of music, the stages of Nina's life, and the range of emotions she experienced--all expressed primarily through her songs with marginal dialogue and narration. Despite the long list of songs, SIMPLY SIMONE constantly entertained and kept the audience on their toes as the musical styles and genres progressed through Nina's years.

A notable portion of SIMPLY SIMONE focused on Nina's experiences with racial inequality from a young age and her role fighting in the civil rights movement as she faced several intensities of injustice in both personal and professional settings. Though this performance is set during Nina's lifetime, in the years 1933-2003, the struggles faced by people of color and the prejudices present in the society of her time seem to align with the current political and social climate in the United States. Songs such as "Strange Fruit", "Mississippi Goddamn", and "Revolution" do more than just pull at sorrowful heartstrings and empower the mentalities of the audience members--they serve to remind us how far we have come, but also how far we have yet to go.

SIMPLY SIMONE opened at The Ensemble Theatre on June 29 and will run through July 30. Performances will be held Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays at 8:00pm, Saturdays at 2:00pm and 8:00pm, and Sundays at 3:00pm, with tickets ranging from $19.00-$50.00. To purchase tickets for SIMPLY SIMONE, please visit The Ensemble Theatre's website at or call the box office at 713.520.0055.

Photo courtesy of The Ensemble Theatre.

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