Nina Simone was an awesome talent and an even more compelling personality. She became “The High Priestess of Soul” almost against her will, since she grew up as a piano prodigy and really only wanted to become the world’s first black classical concert pianist. And along the way, back in the 1960s, she became a fierce voice for the radical black militant movement in America.
In short, there’s a big story to tell about Nina Simone. Unfortunately, this slap-dash play created by David Grapes and Robert Neblett captures almost none of the Simone magic. Due to a series of wrong-headed decisions, the play covers 2 and a half hours and more than 30 songs while managing to miss the compelling essence at the core of Nina Simone’s art.
Before the dissection continues, we must pause and give a pass to the four hard-working performers who try to lift this lumbering show into the air. Sheffia Randall Dooley, Corlesia Smith and Mariama Whyte are all gifted, professional singers and actors, and they generate fleeting moments of bliss. And Afia Mensa does her best while battling some pitch problems in several of her songs. In addition, music director Ed Ridley, Jr. and his four-piece band provide solid support.
The first questionable decision is to have those four women play aspects of Ms. Simone, along with assorted other characters during the narrated sections of the play. These arid readings of Simone’s biography turn the show into a Wikipedia musical, with factoids replacing actual theatrical scenes between and among characters.
Right from the start, the play skids off center as four songs are presented in standard smiley-face variety show style with not a hint of the deep and fascinating Simone personality. From there on, songs from the Simone songbook are presented with varying degrees of power. On the positive side, Smith handles her songs well, especially a spine-tingling version of “I Put a Spell on You.” And Dooley delivers some tingles herself in the second act with “Trouble in Mind” and “My Father.”
While the script dutifully records Simone’s conflicts with her dad, her husband/manager Andy, her sister and herself, the show never slows down enough to allow these torments to land with any impact.
This problem is not aided by an overly simplistic scenic design by Inda Blatch-Geib that employs photo collages on three-sided rolling columns, intended to capture the era in which Simone and the people in her life. Instead, newsreel footage and photos of Simone herself—who was a stunning presence at all ages—would help immensely. In a similar way, the lighting design by Prophet Seay is bland and perfunctory, without using lighting contrasts to carve out sections of the stage to increase the emotional force of certain moments.
Director Caroline Jackson Smith is certainly hamstrung by this oddly passionless material. But her staging often feels like a by-the-book 1970s TV show, with the singers tramping up and down a small, four-level platform and lining up across the stage and belting. That wasn’t Nina Simone.
Where is the Nina Simone who could turn a pop tune into an entirely new and different creature due to her bold phrasing and daring silences? Where is the Nina Simone who employed classical music idioms in her music, often going on long riffs that turned blues and jazz into something gloriously new. And where is the Nina Simone who was driven by and eventually punished for her deeply held political beliefs?
Some of it is given cursory lip service, but most of what made Nina Simone so different and wonderful is simply missing from Simply Simone.
Through October 8 at Karamu House, 2355 East 89 St., 216-795-7070, karamuhouse.org.