The National Black Theatre Festival is a historic event that “illuminates the powerful theatrical spirit and extraordinary talent of performers, designers, directors, producers and technicians from across the country and abroad.” During the six “life-impacting” days, the website states that there will be electrifying performances, informative workshops, riveting films, and insightful spoken word poetry.
The festival is produced by the North Carolina Black Repertory Company, whose mission according to their website, is the coordination, promotion and development of educational and cultural activities with an emphasis on theatre arts. It was founded in 1979 by Larry Leon Hamlin, and it is North Carolina’s first professional Black theatre company. The company produces Black theatre classics, up and coming African American writers and at least one world premiere each season.
Among the plays that will be featured over the course of six days, one will be returning for a second time to a Winston-Salem stage on Aug. 1 from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Little Girl Blue, inspired by the life and music of Nina Simone débuted Oct. 20 to 23, 2016 at The Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art and attracted Dr. Sam Waymon, Nina Simone’s brother and Bill Cobbs as honorary guests. Unfortunately, tickets sold out last Wednesday due to its high demand and popularity.
According to the press release, the play is a ‘unique theatrical concert experience’ written and directed by award winning playwright Nathan Ross Freeman and is a feature-length production, planned to perform globally. The show stars introducing pianist, vocalist and rising thespian Bijan Miarra Shaw as Eunice Waymon and soul/jazz singer, songwriter, pianist and international recording artist Markeisha Ensley as Nina Simone. Some of Ensley’s favorite credits include, Savannah in Jamaica (AUDELCO nomination), The Radio, Caroline, or Change (Gallery Players NY), Chess (Actor’s Fund benefit), The Jungle Book (Mill Mountain Theatre). She is a graduate of Circle in the Square Theatre School and New York University. As a singer-songwriter and pianist, Markeisha received the 2011 Abe Olman Scholarship Award from the Songwriters Hall of Fame/Songwriters Guild of America and has recently toured in Japan and Europe. Her most recent EP is titled Talk to Me. Ensley appears through the courtesy of Actors’ Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Manager in the United States.
“Little Girl Blue is a conversation between Nina Simone and her younger self, Eunice Waymon,” Freeman said. “That is the specific thing that is talked about, it basically celebrates who she was and who she became. On a universal level, it celebrates all of us. Those daily conversations we have in terms of who we were or who we become. Not in a chronological way, but in a way that our younger selves grow up with us just like our present selves constantly revisit. There is a moral and ethical values are constantly changing as our live proceeds.I don’t want to say she is an anomaly, but she is one of the few celebrities whose success interrupted her dreams, not failure.”
Freeman said the most important aspect of the play to him, is the relationship he had with his different selves who would appear in his life. He has to constantly reference himself presently to negotiate with all of his different selves when he is about to make a life-changing decision. He feels that writing this play and envisioning Simone’s life was one of these decisions.
“The particular self in me decided to explore what this play is for her to have a discussion and conversation with her younger self as Eunice,” Freeman said.
Mabel P. Robinson is a multi-talented professional in the international spheres of directing, choreography and playwriting. She graduated from The Julliard School of Music and has danced with numerous renowned professional companies including Alvin Alley, Martha Graham, Talley Beatty and Louis Johnson. Robinson has appeared on Broadway in box office hits including, Golden Boy, Murderous Angels, Don’t Bother Me I Can’t Cope, Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha, Your Arms Too Short To Box With God, and has performed on various television shows both in the U.S. and internationally. Her movie credits include Cotton Comes To Harlem, Stand Up and Be Counted, Funny Lady, and The Wiz. Early in her career, Robinson was one of the earliest African American females to be featured on American network television when she appeared in Golden Boy, starring the legendary Sammy Davis Jr. At the same time, she was also a featured dancer on the classic music showcase Hullabaloo. She was the first female to have concurrently running Broadway shows. She starred as Dancing Mary in the original production of Your Arms Too Short To Box With God, while also working as the choreographer and assistant director in the Broadway revival of Porgy and Bess. Robinson authored The Glory of Gospel and Mahalia Queen of Gospel, commissioned by Stardust Productions Co.b.v., which ran for three years in Europe. The Glory of Gospel opened the 1997 National Black Theatre Festival Gala; Mahalia Queen of Gospel opened at the 2005 and 2007 National Black Theatre Festival Gala. Robinson created the NCBRC Teen Theatre Ensemble, and is the former Artistic Director of The North Carolina Black Repertory Company and the producer of The National Black Theatre Festival. Robinson is an active member of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society, Actors Equity, and Screen Actors Guild. Robinson also serves as the play’s dramaturg (which is someone who supervises and/or consults the development of a play from concept to production) and this is a new position for her.
“I chose her to be my dramaturg as not only the playwright, but also to be a dramaturg that is because the elements of music and movement are so key to it she has working knowledge of all- she is a playwright, director, musical playwright and director so she has skills in music composition,” Freeman said.
In terms of connecting with the play’s central character, the charismatic and influential Nina Simone, it is not the musical side of Simone that Robinson identifies with.
“For me, Nina Simone is someone that I identify with, she is of the civil rights era and her life was certainly influenced by it and I think it made her take the turn that is so important for us, as black Americans, to know about because it is something that kept her going and took her to a different level and her lyrics are so important to her songs,” Robinson said. “She teaches everyone how to participate on a level in which they could understand and which would be comfortable for them as artists. Unfortunately she had to do a lot of it in Europe because the opportunities did not become available to her in America. It was the perfect timing for her as well.”
Robinson said Simone challenged what was acceptable for a black woman to do as a performer and how much her influence has rubbed off on other artists today. “That was very strong point, there was one way for her but she gave you the freedom, which is basically what the civil rights movement did too,” Robinson said.
Cheyenne Covington is the conceptor and executive producer of Little Girl Blue and he said he identifies with Simone differently than Robinson does in the sense that he was not around for the civil rights movement. As an artist, he believes Simone was the one who inspired just about every contemporary artist today.
“She definitely paved a way for a lot of musicians today and they don’t even know she did, Covington said.
Covington produced a couple small performances in 2002 and 2005, about Nina Simone in a one woman show. He said the play was different from Little Girl Blue but still essentially about the life of Simone.
“I wanted to take it up another step, well several many more steps, so that is why I brought in Nathan about two years ago,” Covington said. “We took that one person- that one character and divided her in two and made her more two-dimensional, which is something a solo performance really can’t do. We separated Nina from Eunice and made two characters of the same character.”
In 2015, Covington said he presented the idea to Nathan to take up the play, put major money behind it and elevate it so it can be an international performance.
Freeman reflects on how people have perceived the work of Simone as a history, but he disagrees and believes “unlike any other artists, we can’t create a history of Nina Simone because her history is still burgeoning because she is an era, she has eras.”
Even now posthumously, he said, there is a wealth of exploration with her and her music. Her music is influential even in T.V. commercials, Freeman said, she is being resurged again. “Just about every major vocalist, at some point in time, wants to do Nina,” Freeman said. “Of course, the simulation the dramatizations of her life will constantly go on. But most importantly, her collection is still developing.”
To learn more about Little Girl Blue, and to see all the performances of The National Black Theatre Festival visit: www.ncblackrep.org/all-2017-nbtf-events/.