Dallas and Fort Worth — I’ve read through quite a few articles about the legendary Nina Simone, née Eunice Waymon, in preparation for this feature, and the only commonality I’ve found between them is how starkly dissimilar each one is from last. Some writers look back and refer to her as “a sophisticated pianist” and “a maverick.” Others say she was “troubled” and “angry,” and some go as far as to say the artist was “hostile” and “imperious.”
It’s difficult to say which approach lends itself to the most accurate portrayal of Nina Simone, and for good reason. It is because she was demonstrably all of these things, and so much more. Indeed, this is why she has inspired so many contributions to the public domain and artistic canon, from biographies and documentaries to plays and musicals—two of which are currently being performed at local playhouses this month. Having seen both, I can say that the narratives surrounding Nina Simone’s legacy are as dynamic as the legend herself. But, more importantly, her continued relevance in our public discourse is multipronged, stemming from several universally applicable points of reference as so artfully captured by the players at the Bishop Arts Theatre Center in Dallas and Jubilee Theatre in Fort Worth.
The Champion, a play by Amy Evans that premiered in 2018, paints a brutally honest and intimately vivid picture of Nina Simone from the perspective of her bandmates. Based on a true story, it takes place in the earlier, more commercial, days of her musical career, shortly before her time as an active voice in the Civil Rights Movement and well before her eventual mental health diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Actress Doentay Roaf, who portrays Simone in BATC’s production of this play under the direction of Rebecca McDonald, says that the show demonstrates the subtleties of the effects of mental illness on friends and family and how the stigmas tied them have hindered our progressive understanding of how to deal with them effectively, especially in the African-American community.
What’s more, with the sweeping influences of the #metoo movement on society today, this work demonstrates how the story of Simone—who was inducted into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2018—story can lend a productive voice to the discourse in this regard as well.
“She was abused,” says Roaf. “There was domestic violence. But, to me, abuse is defined as the misuse of a person or a thing. Nina Simone is the personification of Eunice’s abuse because of who she was—her passions. Nina Simone is a mask of Eunice.”
Certainly, we all wear masks to cope with our pain and struggles.
We even are subjected to police abuse of their power in this show, and the relevancy of that to the modern discourse goes without saying. Race-based police brutality rears its ugly head in the latter parts of the narrative, and the way in which this concept clashes with the overarching themes of mental illness and racial identity makes for a wholly poignant point of reference that many would find useful.
“We’re still seeing the same paradoxes going on,” says Roaf. “You can’t legislate respecting women or respecting men. That’s a heart issue; it’s not a political issue—it’s a heart issue. So, if we can look at the Winter of 1962 in the Fall of 2018 and be moved to say, ‘What can I do?’ then this production does its job.”
This is the fervent power of Simone’s narrative, as more directly demonstrated in Jubilee Theatre’s production of Nina Simone: Four Women by Christina Ham. A musical, this show hinges on interpretations of much of Simone’s music from the political phase of her career following the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, where four little black girls were violently killed, and the assassination of civil rights activist Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi.
Director Regina Washington references it as more of a call to action and a critical review of history. “One of the things that I really gravitate towards is telling our history,” says Washington. “It’s not only dealing with Nina and her transformation, but also those things that caused that transformation—things that were happening in the world during that time, which were Medgar Evers and those four little girls getting killed.”
It goes without saying that the Civil Rights Movement is rife with struggle and tragedy. Looking at this era through the lens of Nina Simone’s artistry and her dynamic career gives one a hyper-personalized view, one that is vulnerable and immediate. It’s makes the societal issues of today seem so much more attainable—more real.
Ardina Lockhart, an actress and vocalist, portrays Nina Simone in Four Women at Jubilee Theatre. “I didn’t realize that so much had changed for her when she made the decision to write music for what she believed in,” says Lockhart. “It was eye-opening for me.”
And in that vein, says Lockhart, we are still fighting for so much of the same things now, some 50 years later—equality, being on level ground. “We see these struggles in different ways, with Facebook and everything,” she says, “but the fights are the same.”
How Nina Simone influenced that fight 50 years ago still applies today, and Jubilee Theatre’s production brings that into stark reality through blatant images of the death and destruction wrought in that era. Funneling the story through the filter of her fiery, outspoken persona gives the message life and energy, most notably by way of her stirring music and provocative lyrics.
It’s strange, at first, coming face to face with all of the vulnerable, nuanced moments of Eunice Waymon’s life through these local productions. Her story is arresting and profoundly complex. But, consequently, in it are deep-rooted messages that can apply to just about anyone in every walk of life. Undeniably, her influence is most pertinent to the African-American community, as she would see fit. However, the confluence if these two unique narratives concurrently occupying the Metroplex brings a new perspective to what it means to be a fan of Nina Simone, to choose to accept her for what she was—intrinsically brilliant, thoroughly flawed, and therefore infinitely relevant to virtually any discussion regarding the human experience.
Nina Simone: Four Women at Jubilee Theatre and The Champion at Bishop Arts Theatre Center both run through Oct. 28, 2018.