By Carol Davis
SAN DIEGO–Nina Simone had many faces. She also had many titles, the voice of movement (Civil Rights that is), and diva of sound, High Priestess of Soul, Dr. Nina Simone and the voice of the people to name a few. Funny thing she was all of these rolled up into one and on different occasions and times in her lifer she pretty much, used them all up.
So it wasn’t unusual for Calvin Manson of the Ira Aldridge Repertory Players, who created and directed the world premiere of A Portrayal of the Life and Music of Nina Simone to cast four talented women to tell her story through music and conversation: Sarah Roy, Nicole Bradley, Janice Edwards and Ayanna Hobson.
Eugene Kathleen Waymon was born in 1933 in Tyrone, North Carolina. She was one of eight children whose hard working mother and booze-loving father influenced her entire life from the musical prodigy that she was to the international jazz singer and activist that she became.
Through a series of circumstances from her disappointment at not getting the classical musical scholarship to the Curtis Institute of Music she worked so hard to attain (because she was black) to attending Juilliard for a year until her money ran out, to the jazz singer, the civil rights activist, the angry daughter, the disillusioned wife and mother and the gifted artist the world praised her for, Waymon was always in the process of reinventing herself.
She hated being pigeonholed as a jazz singer claiming, “I play black classical music.” Her all inclusive repertoire included ‘jazz, pop, blues, spiritual, folk, African song, as well as contemporary’.
Trained as a classical pianist she switched to jazz when it became evident she could not make any money in classical music field. During her lifetime she crossed over to other genres playing in venues like the Apollo Theatre, Carnegie Hall and the Newport Jazz Festival.
And when the road she was traveling veered (she traveled through and lived in Switzerland, France, England, Liberia and Barbados) and led to a dead end, she adjusted and opened new ones finally ending up in Europe (she died in France) where she ultimately found complete acceptance and peace as both an African American and as an artist.
Manson takes the audience on a somewhat well traveled road and then some less traveled ones as we learn more and more about the talented Nina Simone. As mentioned earlier, from humble beginnings playing piano in her church at the age of four, to turning to jazz to earn money to her actively participating in the Civil Rights Movement, Simone (taken from actress Simone Signoret and Nina meaning little one)) carved a path uniquely hers.
Flanked by a very talented trio of musicians, Anthon Smith (Piano), Doug Walker (Bass), Richard Sellers (Drummer) and introduced by dancers Beyanna Hall, Alize Irby, Maile Lattimore and Bussey Neal representing the diversity of Simone the show begins with the four women singing “Four Women”.
Twenty one songs later combined with a lifetime filled with ups and down’s, highs and lows, Manson along with his singers, dancers and musicians manages to give us an appreciation of the singer and person we know as Nina Simone. Some of the talent stood out above the others but for the most part, the two-hour show is inclusive and does highlight Simone’s lifetime achievements.
Sarah Roy, an eleventh grader at The San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts represents her young life ‘always hopeful for a better future’ as Simone #1. Overall she performed beautifully if not a little unsteady in the beginning with “Beautiful Land” and gathering strength in “To Be Gifted Young and Black” and “Other Women”
Nicole Bradley is Simone #2 ‘the singer on the verge of success’ looking stunning and stately in Joshlyn Turner and Yolanda Franklin’s long evening gowns singing “Balm In Gilead” and “I Love You Porgy” with Sarah Roy and Ayanna Hobson.
Janice Edwards is a standout as the activist, the thirty something Nina when she belts out “Mississippi Goddamn”, “Revolution”, and “Look Of Love” and just as appealing in “Black Is The Color Of My True Love’s Hair” and is at the prime of her life. I could have listened to her all evening with that spunk and liveliness.
Ayanna Hobson who also portrayed Sarah Vaughn in another of Manson’s productions represents the exiled, the forty plus Nina, the wise one and the jaded one. Hers are the most diverse of the selections from “Backlash Blues” to “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” to “Trouble in Mind and “Strange Fruit” and they are wonderfully done and performed to perfection.
All in all, with the combination of the four women singing both solo and accompanying each other, the dancers and the live musicians Manson has pieced together an evening of entertainment with a partial cross section of Nina Simon’s body of works while examining her turbulent journey.
A personal note in the program by her brother Dr. Carroll Waymon fills in a little more of the history of his sister and to some extent what she thought of both her public and private persona. He also tells of how the two performed together in their early years, “ traveling all over the place, she on the piano and he a concert singer at age 14 …just having a good time”.
Enjoy the journey and the music.
See you at the theatre.
Dates: April 30-May 23rd
Organization: Ira Aldridge Repertory Players
Production Type: Musical Biography
Where: 3911 Kansas St. San Diego, 92104
Ticket Prices: $45.00 dinner and show; $25.00 show only
Venue: Sunset Temple
Theatre critic Davis is based in San Diego