Eunice, Nina and Laiona

“White people had Judy Garland–we had Nina. God bless ya, baby!”

Little Girl Blue: The Nina Simone Musical – Written and Performed by Laiona Michelle – George Street Playhouse 1/27/19 Photo Credit: T Charles Erickson© T Charles Erickson

Richard Pryor’s quote introduces a 4-CD box set, a concise summary of more than forty record albums, mostly in the 1960s. Nina Simone’s story parallels the evolution of race consciousness and rights during that period. In fact, it’s a very good story, the kind of story that deserves a proper stage show to feature both the music, the struggles, the era, and a remarkable performer that most people do not know very well.

Fortunately, I was not the only one who thought that was a good idea.

There are three names to know. The first is Eunice Kathleen Waymon, a talented girl born in Tryon, North Carolina in 1933 who never lost the child within her, for all of the good and the bad that may bring. The second is Nina Simone, a stage name built from the Spanish term for “little one” and “Simone” after the actress Simone Signoret. The third name is Laiona Michelle, a Broadway actress and singer who decided to write and star in a small stage show so the story and music of Nina Simone could be shared with a 21st century audience.

This is not a one-woman show, and that was a wise production decision. Instead, Laiona/Nina appears with her small jazz band (basically: piano, bass, drums) in an imaginative styling of a club set in the early and later 1960s (lighting and scenery are supportive and well-done).

Maybe in another time, the story would be a happy one. Watching the show, recently staged at The George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, New Jersey (on the Rutgers University campus), one wishes it could have been otherwise. Her regrets are our regrets. Waymon was a gifted classical pianist, clearly special from the age of three, who benefitted from a small town piano teacher who not only recognized her talent, but helped her get to the Juilliard School in New York City (the community raised the necessary funds). Sadly, we were deprived of her work on the classical side because Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music turned down her application, almost certainly as a result of the color of her skin (in 2003, just before her death, they offered an honorary degree). She was devastated.

And, she was resilient. Determined. Vastly talented. Capable of holding the stage at a time when this was not easy for a singer to do on her own. She had a sense of humor, too, and a sense of how to keep her career in motion despite indefensible obstacles. At the start of the stage show, Laiona begins to find her way and the audience becomes comfortable with her interpretation of Nina Simone. In time, despite the occasional subtle miss, she becomes Nina Simone–and everyone in the theater is on her side. It’s not easy to be Nina/Eunice; she struggles more than any person ought to struggle, but those were her times, and she wasn’t getting the kind of help that might be available nowadays (under the best of circumstances).

It’s striking to see just how much music, and Nina Simone, and our consciousness changed in a decade. Her earliest recordings, and her earliest hits, come from Broadway. For example, George Gershwin’s “I Loves You, Porgy,” Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Something Wonderful,” Cole Porter’s “The Laziest Gal in Town,” and Rodgers and Hart’s “Little Girl Blue” (which titles the stage show) are part of the repertoire. And they sit beside some hipper Broadway tunes such as Anthony Newley’s “Feeling Good” and “Beautiful Land.” One favorite, not included in the stage show, goes back to the early days of vaudeville, the Ziegfeld Follies, when songwriter-performer Bert Williams would perform his signature “Nobody” in blackface. The juxtaposition of this material against one of Simone’s best-known songs, “Mississippi Goddam” seems striking, but this composition, and many more of her original songs, also stand beside the Billie Holiday song, “Strange Fruit” (written by Lewis Allen), and Holiday’s own “Tell Me More and Then Some.” Certainly, the first act’s closer, “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” is both a show stopper and a wonderfully sensitive reading of a song that doesn’t get much attention nowadays.

There is a lot of music in this show. Some of the above songs, some of Simone’s most popular songs, are not included in the stage show (it’s impossible to include everybody’s one favorite). (Laiona does an especially good job with one of my favorites, Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today,” and easily one of the best versions of the sometimes-yukky “My Way” I have ever heard). Still, there is an appropriate mix, the right songs to propel the story of Nina Simone’s progress from jazz/pop singer in the early 1960s to a fully aware, righteous Black woman and social activist later in the 1960s, and on through the 1990s and beyond. Her engagement in the Civil Rights movement leads to time in Liberia, Barbados, England, Belgium, France, Switzerland and The Netherlands. Much of the time is difficult, and as she continues to perform, the dramatic story becomes emotional on two levels. There is the life of Eunice Kathleen Waymon, who never quite left her childhood memories behind, and finds herself deeply disappointed by some of what has happened to her. And there is the life of a spectacularly talented dark-skinned singer who represents far more than herself, and tries to make things better, often against adversity. It’s not an easy story to hear because none of us did nearly enough to make things better, but the music soothes and eases the bad feelings. It’s a patent medicine, an elixir, a mode of storytelling that allows the story to progress without tearing our insides out.

As I write this article, I’m listening to the Four Women box set that recaps her work for Verve. I have a particular attachment to “Nobody,” which I mention again because I’ve just listened to it again, but as I browse the stage show’s song list, I realize that I have a particular connection to many of the songs. And not just the songs. The sense that this was a life that I should have known better, a body of work, an artist who deserves more of today’s stage than she has been allowed.

Here’s hoping we have not seen the last of Little Girl Blue by, and starring, Laiona Michelle. Here’s hoping Nina Simone finds her place in an off-Broadway theater for a spell, and then, here’s hoping she takes that show on the road so that everyone can experience, and remember, who Nina Simone was, and was she still matters.

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