San Diego, CA--- 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 is reprising his hit tribute to Nina Simone (“A Portrayal of the Life and Music of Nina Simone”) in this most recent incarnation “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” with a cast four talented women, to tell her story through music and conversation with Traci Parramore-Chambers, Dorothy Annette, Janice Edwards and Ayanna Hobson who make up the four faces/worlds of Nina Simone.
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. 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 the French actress Simone Signoret and Nina meaning little one)) carved a path uniquely hers.
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.
Due to 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 Julliard 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.
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.
In ‘Misunderstood’, the four women are flanked by a very talented group of musicians and directors that, together, make up the this well rounded evening. Stephen Gooden is musical arranger, musical direction is by Ayanna Hobson and of course Calvin Manson directs.
The show begins after a beautiful rendering of Jacque Brel’s “Ne Me Quitte Pas” performed by Sydney Jacobs and choreographed by Foster-King, (on opening night) followed by the whole cast singing “I Want A Little Sugar In My Bowl”, choreographed by C. Anthony Cole and showcasing Maria Mendenhall-Lopez and Ronald Davis.
Of her many musical compositions, nineteen or so that we heard were written by Simone with one or two by other composers. Her musical accomplishments are woven into a lifetime of stories filled with ups and down’s, highs and lows that are narrated by all for women representing her different life changes and periods. Manson along with his singers, dancers and musicians manage to give us an appreciation of the singer and person we know as Nina Simone.
Some of the talent stood out above the others and when the entire cast performed, the production excelled. Overall, the one and a half hour showcase is inclusive and does highlight Simone’s lifetime achievements.
Traci Parramore-Chambers, the Child, Innocent, energetic and hopeful 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” with the entire cast.
Dorothy Annette is Nina #2, ‘the singer on the verge of success’ is fine as she pairs with Traci and Ayanna in their interpretation of “I Love You Porgy” but her rendering of “Autumn Leaves” left much to be desired on opening night.
Janice Edwards, (Nina 3) 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 Hair”. During this period, she was at the prime of her life. I could have listened to Ms. Edwards all evening with that spunk and liveliness that never left her.
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” (with the cast) to “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” to “Trouble in Mind” to “Strange Fruit” and they are wonderfully done and performed to perfection.
All in all, the combination of these four women singing both solo during her developing years and together as the whole Simone, along with the dancers and the wonderfully talented live musicians that include Bass - Nate Jones Guitar - Adrian Lahaie-Drums - Danny King Saxophone - Leon Mathews and musical director Stephen Gooden on piano, “Misunderstood” is a fine representation of a not so long ago era.
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.
Enjoy the journey, the ride and the music.
See you at the theatre.
Dates: Oct. 25th –Nov. 10th
Organization: Ira Aldridge Players
Production Type: Musical Revue
Where: 4343 Ocean View Blvd, San Diego, CA 92113.
Ticket Prices: $25.00
Venue: Educational Cultural Complex Theatre