Ruth Rodgers-Wright plays an excellent Nina Simone in this 70-minute performance that combines many of the musician's most enduring and striking melodies with the story of her relationship with the civil-rights activist Lorraine Hansberry.
The Nina Simone songbook and a showcase of the cast’s considerable musical talents.
The play, Nina Simone Black Diva Power, presented by the Universal Arts Festival and Arts Events Australia, is innovatively structured - the glamorous, sequinned Nina narrates her own tale while Hansberry hangs around in a nearby chair, her interjections triggering short spates of dialogue between the two. Meanwhile, the ever present pianist, the brilliant Steven Grant, is both cast and crew, the other characters nodding their approval and acknowledging him as he vamps his way into Mack the Knife or Strange Fruit. It's like a late night in a New York jazz bar, a vibe that contrasts sharply with some of the subject matter later touched upon.
The script is minimal, extremely clear and to the point. No single section of the dialogue feels longer than two minutes, which allows more room for Rodgers-Wright to show off her spectacular vocals in song after song. In fact, dialogue is frequently placed mid-song, creating a seamless, blended structure that is less like a piece of theatre and more like a musical gig.
A word of caution though: while this production is slick, and the music is wonderful, the same structure that gives it such a laid back, jazzy vibe also leaves a strangely dissatisfying feeling for the theatre enthusiast. It's hard to feel that Simone's political activism was really given anything more than a cursory examination. Certainly, the character that begins the play as a successful musician with no real understanding of the civil rights movement changes drastically; she later has lines a hardcore militant revolutionary would be proud of. The production touches on brilliant points and the performative differences between Rodgers-Wright's intelligently Uncle Tom-esque rendition of My Baby Don't Care and the political, intense Young, Gifted and Black is striking. But fundamentally this production becomes the Nina Simone songbook and a showcase of the cast’s considerable musical talents.
This is a four star show, if you consider the quality of performance, the spectacular musical interpretations and the points it gently implies but it is not the show it is advertised to be. Go to this show if you love the music of Nina Simone and want to see it performed well. Do not go if you expect a play that will examine the ‘where’, the ‘when’, and the ‘why’ of Simone's political activism. The songs only tell a small part of that story.