Musical Icon Nina Simone Lives on in ‘Nina’

Published May 11, 2010 by San Diego News Network (SDNN) and San Diego Gay and Lesbian News.

Calvin Manson — writer and director of the musical “Nina” — saw Nina Simone perform while he was a student at UC San Diego in 1972.

When it came time for the outspoken icon to sing “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” she asked all the black students in the large crowd to stand up. Four stood, and she sang the song directly to them.

“I mean that right there changed my life,” Manson recalled. “I walked for months, and graduated, with my head held high thinking ‘Yes, I am young, gifted and black.’”

Afterward, at a reception following Simone’s performance, she cursed Manson out for not offering her his seat fast enough and for calling her “Nina Simone.”

“She said ‘You don’t know me. It’s Ms. Simone to you.’”

She had her moods, he said, but the way she demanded respect from people didn’t make him love her any less.

“When you listen to Donny Hathaway, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Aretha Franklin, and they’re singing their protest songs, they learned and copied and got some of that from Nina Simone,” explained Manson, the artistic director of San Diego’s Ira Aldridge Repertory Players.

“Nina” features four women playing Simone at different periods of her life: ages 16 to 20, 20 to 30, 30 to 40 and 40 and up.

In its world premiere production, the musical will continue at San Diego’s Sunset Temple through May 23. Simone’s only child, Lisa, who’s also a singer, is expected at next Saturday’s performance.

With all four cast-members onstage at once, the Ninas have conversations with each other that delve deeper into lesser-known ups and downs of Simone’s career and personal life, including her relationships with her father, husbands, country and black America.

The production is the culmination of a five-year process of writing and research. It began in 2005 at the request of Dr. Carrol Waymon, Simone’s older brother and a San Diego resident since 1964.

“I’ve done other shows on icons like Sarah Vaughan or Billie Holiday and [writing about them] came very easy,” Manson said. ”But Nina Simone — there was so much to her. And trying to capture all of that and put it into a play, that was difficult.”

A little genius

Though she would become known as a diva, “the voice of the movement” and “the high priestess of soul,” Nina Simone was born Eunice Waymon, one of eight children in the musical and religious home of John and Mary Kate Waymon in Tryon, North Carolina.

Both her parents were ministers and all eight children learned to play a musical instrument, her brother said.

When she was four, their father had surgery, and Simone served as his “little nurse.” Her father, in turn, introduced her to secular songs of the day before becoming a more devout Christian.

“They had a little private secret,” Waymon said, adding that Nina’s father told her  that “‘when mom comes home from work, she’s not to know.’ So they did that for several years. He taught her on the piano and all that.”

Nina’s talent soon became apparent.  Once the woman whose house her mother cleaned heard about “this little genius there across town,” she paid for Nina’s classical piano training until she was a teenager and the family moved to Philadelphia.

Simone didn’t start singing until later in life. Back in North Carolina, “she did the playing and I did the singing,” Waymon said, until he shipped off for World War II.

“That’s how I got started,” Waymon remembered. “So at about 14, I was a concert singer, and we traveled all over the place. Nina was the pianist and I was the concert singer. We had ourselves a ball.”

Simone went to New York’s Juilliard School of Music for a summer. But she left behind aspirations of being a classical pianist after failing to make the cut at another prestigious music school, Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music, which she felt was the result of racism.

New name, new career

In 1954, Eunice adopted the name Nina Simone when she was hired by a club in Atlantic City. On the spot, she made up the name to conceal her new job from her parents, who would have disapproved.

It was the first time she sang, according to Waymon.

Her boss wanted her to sing and she said “I can’t sing.” He told her, “if you want the job, you have to sing.”

Five years later, she would release her first hit, her version of the song “I Loves You Porgy” from Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess.” It would take 20 years for her mother to forgive her for singing secular music and accept her talents, though her oldest children also became musicians.

Other major hits throughout her career include “Feeling Good,” “Sinnerman,” “Four Women” and “I Put a Spell On You.”

Waymon came to San Diego in 1964, brought here by the city to run the Citizens Integration Committee, which would become the city human relations agency.

Working with a staff of 19, Waymon helped desegregate jobs, education and housing and mediated between businesses, city government and the community at a fragile and tense time in San Diego and America’s history.

More than 100 boxes of his notes, documents and tapes of historic City Hall and community meetings will be sent to archives at San Diego State University, where Waymon taught for eight years and founded the school’s Black Studies department.

Once analyzed, his archives may reveal more about important chapters in San Diego’s Civil Rights history.

Reluctantly joining the movement

At the same time that Dr. Waymon was beginning to settle in San Diego, his sister became known for protest or movement songs like “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” a tribute to “A Raisin in the Sun” author and friend Lorraine Hansberry; “Mississippi Goddam,” written after the murder of activist Medgar Evers and the bombing of a church in Birmingham; “Why? (The King of Love is Dead),” after Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968, and other passionate songs at the height of the Civil Rights movement.

Waymon said that initially, his sister had no interest in getting involved in the Civil Rights movement but that ultimately she “couldn’t escape it.”

She was urged to get involved by socially conscious friends like writers Langston Hughes and James Baldwin. She was also brought up with a disgust for injustice, Waymon said.

“From day one in our family it was stressed [that you] do unto others as you’d have them do unto you,” he commented.

Waymon also pointed out that Simone inherited her father’s fire — a fact made evident when the young Simone refused to go onstage until her parents were moved from the back to the front row at a recital in a segregated building.

“She said: ‘They get a front seat, or we don’t have a concert.’ That’s the first instance we knew that she picked up daddy’s fire about being fair.”

The internationally-known Simone would later claim the Black Power movement used her up and that she was fed up with American racism. She moved to Europe in the late 1970s, came back to the U.S. in 1985 and left for good after 1991.

She was awarded an honorary degree from the Curtis Institute of Music, her childhood dream, two days before her death in 2003 at her home in the south of France. She was 70 years old.

Knowing Nina

Simone refused to be defined as a jazz musician. In an interview she once defined her music as “black classical” and her performances often fused classical, jazz, folk and her own brand of soul.

The two older Ninas in the production of “Nina,” Janice Edwards and Ayanna Hobson, are jazz singers, and said that Simone has been a part of their lives for a long time. They often sing her songs in their own shows around town.

Hobson, who plays the part of 40+ Nina, thinks of Simone’s work as more organic than other so-called divas.

The way Simone combined blues and Bach, for instance, showed the “different levels at which she operated. She had these roots that reached down into supporting humanity.”

Edwards, who portrays the 30-to-40 activist Nina, said her music “looks like my whole childhood. I’ve been knowing Nina Simone my whole life.”

In contrast, the younger Ninas, like 16-year-old Sarah Roy and Nicole Bradley, who plays her between the ages of 20 to 30, had to Google her after getting involved in the project. Bradley learned that biographers found that Simone was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in the 1960s, a fact that would remain unknown publicly until after her death.

Joshlyn Turner, 25, said most of the people she knows who are her age are familiar with Simone because contemporary rappers like Kanye West and Common borrowed portions of her songs for their own music.

She knew about Simone before but got to know her better while serving as the production’s co-director.

“I think the fact that she went so much against the grain placed her aside from everyone else and gave her that light,” she said.

Stage manager Yolanda Adams also didn’t know much about Simone. To her, both the musical and Simone’s music are intimate experiences.

“She just takes you on a journey,” said Adams, “and you go every step of the way.”

Khari Johnson is an SDNN contributor.

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