Internationally renowned as the high priestess of soul, Nina Simone (1933 – 2003) was also self-described as America’s favorite angry black woman. Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon, she had a voice that thrilled but a temperament that often chilled. Her brilliance as a musician and entertainer was as formidable as her impassioned involvement with the civil rights movement. She was seen as a provocateur and social activist.
Simone’s life and legacy has now been gifted with a terrific stage play with music, “Little Girl Blue,” as written and performed by Laiona Michelle at the George Street Playhouse.
Whether you know anything about Simone’s astonishing career and her complicated and often troubled life, “Little Girl Blue” is going to keep you in thrall for its entirety.
Michelle, whose straight dramatic performance last season at George Street playing a veteran of the Afghanistan war in “American Hero” was just a glimmer of the powerhouse performer, offers a stunning reflection of musical artistry.
This play is Michelle’s debut as a writer. She has a winner. She brings with her interpretation of Simone a dramatic intensity and emotional detail that allows for a perspective we rarely get in this kind of presentation. That isn’t all. Michelle has a terrific collaborator in director Devanand Janki, whose staging keeps the play’s emotional dynamics at the fore without compromising the play’s musical core.
Michelle’s voice has its own distinction, one that effectively gets to the heart and soul of some 17 songs associated with Simone. It naturally includes her 1958 hit “I Loves You Porgy” from George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” and the play’s title song by Rodgers and Hart.
In what could have simply been a respectful tribute, Michelle has enriched her gritty text with sections of personal and painful recollections as recitative. Accompanied by three on-stage musicians characterized as long-time associates and friends — Mark Fifer (keyboard/conductor), Saadi Zain (bass), and Kenneth Salters (drums/percussion) — Michelle also takes to the keyboard on occasion to add another level to her performance. Most entertaining is her relationship with the musicians who have to deal with Simone’s instabilities.
The play is structured to depict two concerts, the first at the Westbury Music Fair in 1968 at which her stage appearance is flanked by armed police. The time is shortly after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Dedicated to Dr. King’s memory, it is a powerful, unsettling opening as Simone appeals to the rumbling crowd of supporters and agitators to take their seats.
“Feeling Good,” from Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley’s 1965 Broadway show “The Roar of the Greasepaint — the Smell of the Crowd,” “Love Me or Leave Me,” another Broadway work from the 1920s, and others, including her own controversial composition, “Mississippi Goddam,” serve as powerful transitions to a series of unsparing events over Simone’s lifetime. These often heart-breaking narrative/flashbacks include Simone’s young years studying to be a concert pianist and her subsequent rejection from the Curtis Institute because she is a woman and black.
Throughout the play, Michelle’s segues from song to story and back are seamless. This, as we see her as a performer, recording star, and various characters including her mother, a Methodist minister who disapproved of the “devil’s music,” and her abusive husband, who is also her manager. Realistically and to the playwright’s credit, Simone’s mostly blistering insights display a complicated woman, severely tested by being bipolar.
Her emotional ups and downs play an important role in the play’s second half — a performance in 1976 by Simone at the Montreux Jazz Festival. The songs including “Come On Back Jack,” Jacques Brel’s “Ne Me Quitte Pas” (Do Not Leave Me), the traditional “Black Is the Color of my True Love’s Hair,” and a rousing but exceedingly poignant “My Way” become a deepening understanding of that little girl blue.
The play is performed entirely on a raised bandstand with a turntable. The backdrop is a stunning hand-painted art-deco mural, the work of set designer Shoko Kambara. The splendid costumes designed by Ari Fulton reflect the change in eras. The lighting by designer Xavier Pierce is notable as are all the technical aspects of this fine world premiere production. It is, however, Michelle’s powerful singing and searing introspection of an iconic American soul that makes this show worthy of a long life.
Little Girl Blue, George Street Playhouse, 103 College Farm Road, New Brunswick. Through Sunday, February 24. $25 to $79. 732-246-7717 or georgestreetplayhouse.org.