Windy City Timesheater: Nina Simone: The High Priestess Speaks
by Mary Shen Barnidge
Playwright: Ebony Joy
At: Black Ensemble Theater at the Hull House, 4520 N. Beacon St.
Phone: ( 773 ) 769-4451; $35
Runs through: open run
What was originally announced as Black Ensemble Theater’s “Season of Women” is now in its SECOND season because, as artistic director Jackie Taylor marveled, “you all won’t let us close these shows!”. If the opening-night response to its latest biodrama is any indication, another one can unpack its bags and settle in for a long stay.
As recounted in Ebony Joy’s elegant script ( clocking in at a sleek two hours with one intermission ) , Simone’s story was not your run-of-the-mill diva’s CV. For one, Eunice Kathleen Waymon was recognized early as a prodigy, studying piano at Julliard with the financial assistance of a ( white ) benefactor, but barred from admission to the Curtis Conservatory. For another, her mother, an ordained Methodist minister, disapproved of secular music—the impetus behind the daughter taking a stage name for her career as a jazz musician—while her FATHER encouraged her to find her own voice. And later, after she made clear that she would not tolerate a single episode of drunken abuse, her roistering husband-to-be vowed to change his ways—and DID.
But it’s not just these deviations from stereotype that distinguished Nina Simone from the sex kittens and hot mamas dominating popular entertainment in the 1950s. To be sure, during the course of the show, she sings hip-wigglers ( “My Chauffeur” ) , torchers ( “Tell Me More” ) , gospel hymns ( “Go Where I Send You” ) and rip-snorter blues ( “I Put A Spell On You” ) . But her legacy lies in the songs she wrote after becoming radicalized by Lorraine Hansberry ( along with Langston Hughes and James Baldwin, here portrayed as a pair of smug egoists ) —most notably the angry “Mississippi Goddam,” with its deceptively Broadway beat. ( “This is a show tune,” she confides to her audience, “but the show hasn’t been written yet.” )
“If there was one thing the ‘60s taught me, it was self-respect!” Though Simone died in 2003, so wholly does Yahdina U’deen ( formerly performing as Phyliss Overstreet ) immerse herself in her persona, her rolling contralto enhanced by Jimmy Tillman’s orchestra ( especially by stunt-double pianist Derrick Bounds ) and an ensemble performing Ruben D. Echoles’s expressive dances, you’d think it was the High Priestess herself speaking.
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