Friday, September 15, 2017

Finely performed “Simply Simone” jazzes up Karamu

Mention the name Nina Simone and your mind probably conjures up jazz.  Yes, Nina, the jazz superstar and writer/performer of such powerhouse songs as “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” and “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.”  But, were you aware that the terms child prodigy, civil rights activist, political exile and the Legend Queen of Black Classical music also apply?

Simone, whose given name was Eunice Kathleen Waymon, was the child of a preacher who was emotionally absent and an uptight religious mother. 

Born in the deeply segregated South, she showed early talent as a pianist and, under the tutelage of a white piano teacher, and the financial backing of both blacks and whites of Tryon, North Carolina, Eunice, who wished to be the first black major concert pianist, was accepted at Julliard School of Music. 

She was later denied entrance into the prestigious Curtiss Institute of Music in Philadelphia, in a slightly veiled act of race and gender bias.  Two days before her death, the rejection was set aside when Curtiss gave her an honorary doctorate degree.

In order to avoid the wrath of her mother, who detested the “devil’s music”, Eunice changed her name to Nina Simone.  Thus, she started to play “cocktail piano” and sing, in her contralto voice, at venues in Atlantic City, wrote her own songs, and made herself into the diva of classical, jazz, blues, folk, R&B, gospel and pop.  Before she was done, she produced more than 40 albums.

“Simply Simone the music of Nina Simone” is a biographical review which uses song to illustrate the turbulent life and rich artistic legacy of this American musical diva.

The songs, presented by four different African American women, all performing Nina at various stages of her life, illustrate the many moods of the woman, as well as the important people in her life.

We experience Eunice’s upbringing, early piano lessons, youthful successes, marriage and relationship failures, friendships with the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr., Lorraine Hansberry, Leroy Jones and Langston Hughes, as well as her exile from the country for tax evasion, refusal to return for the funeral of her father, her relationship with her daughter, and the rises and falls of her career.

To be successful, a production of “Simply Simone” requires four supreme actresses with stellar voices and a wailing band.  Fortunately, Karamu has all the bases covered.

In its regional premiere, and the opening of the theatre’s 2017-2018 season, the outstanding cast features Sheffia Randall Dooley (the Earth Mother image of Simone), Afia Mensa (youthful image), Corlesia Smith (sophisticated Nina) and Mariama Whyte (the edgy and powerful façade).  Each woman plays the singer as a person or as a part of the legend.

Ed Ridley’s band, featuring his keyboard playing, the percussion of Elijah Gilmore, Brad McGee on guitar and bass player Kevin Byous, excel, expertly backed up without drowning out the singers. 

The scenic and costume design of Inda Blatch-Geib, lighting by Prophet Seay, sound by Rob Peck and choreography by Adenike Sharpley all enhance the production, which is under the adept direction of Caroline Jackson Smith.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  If you like the sounds and music of Nina Simone, enjoy well played, sung and performed jazz, gospel, blues, folk, R&B, and pop music, and want to know more about the Diva of Jazz, Karamu’s “Simply Simone” should be your entertainment destination.

“Simply Simone” continues through October 8, 2017 at Karamu, 2355 East 89th Street. In contrast to a pervious announcement, the entire theatre season will be performed on the Karamu campus.  Free parking in a guarded lot is available.  For ticket information call 216-795-7070 or go on line to