In 1946, 13-year-old Eunice Waymon made her piano concert debut. Her parents were forced to vacate their front row seats in the segregated venue. Eight years later, she found herself gigging at a dive bar in Atlantic City under a stage name—an alias, really— fearful that her parents would learn of her unenlightened employment. She took “Nina,” Spanish for “little one,” and “Simone,” after the French actor Simone Signoret. The classical pianist had switched to pop and (begrudgingly) taken up singing. Within eight years, she was recording. Her take on Gershwin’s “I Loves You Porgy” made her a star. It was a song she didn’t particularly like. In the following decade she rebranded again, focusing compositional efforts on the civil rights movement. The 1964’s “Mississippi Goddamn” got her boycotted in the south for its message and elsewhere for its profane title. She became particularly interested in the work of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and appeared for them many times over the ensuing years.
Lione’s voice and presence carry a tractor trailer load of charisma… Run (or dance), don’t walk, to grab tickets to ‘Nina’ before it’s gone.
On the stage of Baltimore’s Arena Players is a lovely tribute piece simply titled “Nina,” conceived by Randolph Smith and directed by Donald Owens. It is part musical revue, part biographical drama. In it, the title character is played by newcomer Cierra Lione. The loose structure of the play consists of a live broadcast in the first act and a CORE fundraiser concert reenactment in the second. The play opens with a radio host played by James A. Brown. His character interviews Simone about her life and career, in between plugs for donations to the station’s pledge drive. It isn’t all talk, though, as flashbacks and other cutaways feature Lione performing pieces from the Nina Simone catalog. On opening night, the audience in the packed house was enthusiastic and knew the material well. Completely unprompted, they joined the backing chants of “too slow!” from the middle section of “Mississippi Goddamn.” There’s a live band, led by musical director Bruce Henderson. They provide fine accompaniment, though the highlight of the first act is an a cappella rendition of “Images,” Simone’s song that was based on a poem by Waring Cuney.
Brown’s character is the narrative glue and he’s very smooth in the role, but the story and the stage belong to Lione. There are plenty of opportunities to watch both interviews and performances featuring Simone; her mannerisms of speaking as well as singing were certainly unique. Thankfully, Lione doesn’t try to impersonate her. As Brown’s character says later, “No one else is like her and no one ever will be.” Instead, Lione creates her own interpretation of her character’s style. In the dialogue sections, her delivery has a syncopated cadence to it that grabs attention. Her pauses and gestures serve both comic timing and dramatic emphasis. Lione truly commands the action, even before the first note is sung.
When it’s time to belt out a number, Lione shows off a voice that’s more sonorous than Simone’s was. She’s a bit throatier—almost reminiscent of Sarah Vaughn. Her pitch isn’t always perfect, but Lione’s voice and presence carry a tractor trailer load of charisma. In the closing verse of “Four Women,” she spools up the energy to a gospel shout. It’s the highlight of the second act, which she shares with dancers and singers including Melissa Jones, Morgan K. Martin, and Tanya Smith. Choreography is by De’asia Ellis, who is also featured on stage, and Simone’s mother is played in vignette by Brenda Rann. Apart from the song and dance sequences by these artists, the show includes rousing numbers by the group Tapsichore. They remind one of the great hoofing traditions of Simone’s era and earlier.
Run (or dance), don’t walk, to grab tickets to “Nina” before it’s gone.
Running time: 95 minutes with one intermission.
“Nina” runs through June 18, 2023 at Arena Players, 801 McCulloh Street, Baltimore, MD 21201. Tickets are available online. Face masks are optional.