She started playing piano by ear at age 3, played regularly in church at 6 and made her concert debut and her first civil rights stand – at 12, when her parents were asked to vacate their front-row seats for white people. She refused to play until they were re-seated in the front.
Her mother was a busy preacher; her father, a mostly absent handyman. Her older sister Lucille was the one person in the family who was “strong, funny and always there to pick up the pieces.”
Eunice Kathleen Waymon might have become “the world’s first black classical pianist,” but her life changed direction when she was denied a scholarship to the prestigious Curtis Institute on what she felt were racist grounds.
Instead, she started playing clubs and singing – jazz, soul, folk – developing the alto-to-tenor voice and improvisational style for which she became famous. To keep from embarrassing her mother (who said she was singing “the devil’s music”), she changed her name to Nina (from the Spanish word niña, meaning “girl”) Simone (from French actress Simone Signoret).
Simone, “the High Priestess of Soul” (a name she gave herself), is memorialized in the concert-bio “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” which plays through Nov. 10 at the Educational Cultural Complex.
Calvin Manson, artistic director of the Ira Aldridge Repertory Players, wrote and directs the show, which features four women – Dorothy Annette, Janice Edwards, Ayanna Hobson and Traci Parramore-Chambers – as Nina at various stages in her career, backed up by a boffo quintet led by Stephen Goode.
Three dancers (Ron J. Davis, Sandra Foster-King and Maria Mendenhall-Lopez) add visual interest to the music.
The songs vary from folk (“Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair”) to Nina’s first hit, “I Loves You, Porgy” (from the Gershwins’ “Porgy and Bess”) to Abel Meeropol’s “Strange Fruit” to Simone’s own title song.
The highlight of the evening is Edwards’ version of Simone’s famous “Mississippi Goddam,” written in response to the murder of Medgar Evers and the bombing of a church in Birmingham that killed four children. “Oh but this whole country is full of lies/You're all gonna die and die like flies ... You don't have to live next to me/Just give me my equality,” she sings, and brings down the house.
Ayanna Hobson gets in some fine licks too, wailing on “Alone Again (Naturally)” and “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” but this show is mostly a group effort, with most of the songs sung by three or all four women.
Simone spent her last decade in France (she’d been pursued by the IRS for some years previous to that), where she died in 2003. But she will never be forgotten. “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” is a fitting tribute to Simone, whose talent and individuality will never be forgotten.
“Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood: A Tribute to the Life and Music of Nina Simone” runs through Nov. 10 at Educational Cultural Complex, 4343 Ocean View Blvd.
Friday and Saturday at 8 pm, Sunday, Nov. 10 at 2:30 pm.
Tickets: (619) 283-4574 or HERE.
To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.