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BWW Reviews: Hattiloo's SIMPLY SIMONE Sings and Zings

Somewhere in my prodigious vinyl collection there is at least one album by the self-proclaimed "High Priestess of Soul," Nina Simone; and having just seen SIMPLY SIMONE: The Music of Nina Simone, at the Hattiloo Theatre, I am taking a deep breath and planning to thumb through my myriad of records in order to seek it out. Nina Simone never quite "caught on" with mainstream audiences; the legendary Aretha Franklin, who, like Simone, emerged from a gospel background and was a gifted pianist, was much more successful in that respect. Simone was too idiosyncratic a performer to be pigeonholed or labeled. She scoffed at being called a blues singer or a jazz singer; her early classical training, encouraged by a white pianist and patron (who collected money from the people in the town and helped to enroll at Juilliard), always informed her music. Moreover, the songs she chose to interpret, in addition to her own, were an eclectic repertoire: Everything from Gershwin to the Beatles. Underappreciated in her own country, and disillusioned by the stagnation of the Civil Rights Movement after the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., she found her audience abroad, particularly in France; she turned her back on disco (which she disdainfully dismissed) and was selective and intelligent in the music she chose to interpret, which left no room for her on the popularity bandwagon.

Creators Robert Neblett and David Grapes have dedicated themselves to finding the fascinating and complex woman beneath the Diva, and realizing the challenge, they rejected the notion of any one performer ferreting out the "truth" about Nina Simone the Person and Nina Simone the Performer. There are actually four actresses assaying Simone: Yet, despite the linear, Wikipedia-like overview of her life, all four are present throughout the performance. While one Nina may dominate a certain period, the others who comprise her psychological make-up weave in and out of any given moment. Keia Johnson, for example, dominates early on as the piano-playing prodigy whose mother tries to tunnel-vision into solely gospel music. She has a clear, buoyant soprano, as well as a curious mind and vital ambition. Once she leaves Juilliard and moves on to more sophisticated performing, an elegant Rhonda Woodfork takes over as Nina 2. Pulled from concert venues and into racial protests and social issues by friends Lorraine Hansberry and Langston Hughes, and realizing what it is to be "Young, Gifted, and Black," she emerges as a conscientious, committed Nina 3, in the person of Tymika Chambliss, sporting Simone's familiar Afro hair style (which also is outlined on the back wall of the theatre). Finally, there is the turbaned Diva herself, Nina 4, the turban-clad artiste, dissing disco, raising a scornful brow, elegantly dismissing others with the slight gesture of a hand; and the towering Jackie Murray has become the Nina Simone who has finally morphed into her full self.

All of these singers are terrific (Woodfork's utterance of "big bulging eyes and twisted mouth" from the powerful "Strange Fruit" is devastating), and though SIMPLY SIMONE is a celebration of the artist's music, there are ample opportunities for acting; and the ladies do not disappoint. As they weave in and out of the colorful, yet bare stage, they not only become aspects of Simone's personality, but other characters as well -- the religion-fixated mother, the often-absent father, the steady older sister, celebrities like Hansberry and Hughes. Simone discovers the ugliness of racism through experience (when her white patron arranges a public performance, her parents are asked to sit in the back of the auditorium -- until the patron courageously brings them back to the front; and, more subtly, when the predominantly white instructors at the prodigious music institution dismiss her classical interpretations as too 'raw").

Once she has established a musical reputation, gifted fellow artists encourage her to use her gifts on behalf of helping her race, and once the horrific Alabama bombing in the fall of 1963 claims the lives of four young girls, Simone enters the fray full force -- her rendition of "Mississippi Goddam" would make a believer of a Klan member, and it's a showstopper.

I particularly enjoyed the first act of SIMPLY SIMONE, as it is during this time that we meet all the characters who become threads in the fabric of such a rich life. The second act doesn't always live up to it: The problem for me was that the Nina who goes to Barbados isn't so different from the Nina who journeys to Africa -- the same problems abound (i.e., too many lovers, too many disappointments). However, that doesn't mean that it lacks effectiveness. It's shattering to watch Simone deal with the loss of friends and family to assassins' bullets and, perhaps even more devastating, cancer. Ultimately, even a Diva must "pay the piper," but before she does, there are some strong personal, familial issues that she will have to lay to rest. (I like her variation on "Alone Again, Naturally.")

Director/Choreographer Patdro Harris swiftly and confidently has crafted a tasteful, involving production, with superb musical direction by Carlton Leake. Patrica Smith's costume designs are black and white, thus linking each Nina to another; yet, they effectively evoke a particular period in the performer's life. Through June 28.

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From This Author Joseph Baker

I received my Master of Arts Degree in English from Memphis State University and worked as an English instructor at Christian Brothers High School from (read more...)