The Arts

Jazz singer Nina Simone tangles with younger self


Photo graphic by Owen Daniels.

Often times when we are children we see ourselves growing up quite differently. Maybe we thought we would move to Africa to change the world, or become a brain surgeon, firefighter or pop singer. More often times than not, we end up living much simpler lives as we tackle adulthood. But not Nina Simone. As a young woman, Simone aspired to be a concert pianist, but instead she turned into a renowned jazz star. Comparing the life of Nina Simone with that of her younger self, Eunice Waymon, is a local playwright and producer in their concert drama, Little Girl Blue.

A North Carolina native, Nina Simone was a singer, songwriter, pianist and civil rights activist who worked in a broad range of musical styles, from classical to blues to pop. And though her passion was as a classical pianist, she made a living playing “the devil’s music” under the pseudo name Nina Simone. After recording more than 40 albums, she made her debut with “Little Girl Blue.”

In the concert drama, Little Girl Blue, by local playwright Nathan Ross Freeman, Nina Simone’s popular songs are interlaced with dialogue to not only act as a biography, but to uniquely showcase her internal struggle between her younger self, who aspired to be a classist, and her older self, who paid the bills with jazz.

“Nobody can top telling her story more than she can,” Freeman said. “I wanted to have a conversation between her younger and older self, rather than tell a story already told.”

Freeman, who hasn’t written a play for more than 20 years until now, was inspired to write about Simone’s story, in part because of her challenging life, but mostly as a favor to producer Cheyenne Covington, who he said had been bugging him about it for years.

“Nathan’s writing is unbelievable,” Covington said. “It’s a new genre, a concert drama. What that means is there are 20 songs, but they’re woven in with dialogue. The music and the lyrics tell the story just as much as the dialogue does.”

Starring in the concert drama are soul/jazz singer, songwriter, pianist and international recording artist Markeisha Ensley, and pianist, vocalist and rising actor BijanMiarra Shaw.

Freeman said both Ensley and Shaw, along with the entire production crew, have tackled the drama with “feverish passion,” adding to the excitement of the performance.

In fact, the unique take on Simone’s life earned Covington and Freeman an invite to the Cuban Jazz Festival in December. “That’s a really big deal because no one has ever been invited from the United States, officially,” said Covington, who has been working on getting the show produced for the last 16 years.

“(The audience) is going to see a dance of dialogue and music that (encapsulates) what Nina was,” he said.

Wanna go? Little Girl Blue runs Thursday through Sunday at SECCA, 750 Marguerite Drive, Winston-Salem. Tickets are $25-$40. For tickets, buy at the door or visit Mature audiences recommended.