The singer, songwriter, and civil rights activist Nina Simone was a riveting, uncompromising, sometimes confrontational performer. If she thought an audience wasn’t paying close enough attention, or if individual members were trying to leave, she would call them out. Some of her songs were equally bracing. Her 1964 song “Mississippi Goddam” was a fiery response to two violent events in 1963: the murder of Medgar Evers on June 12, and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, on September 15. It was banned on radio stations throughout the south—one station broke promotional copies of the album and returned the pieces to the record company—but 55 years later, it still crackles with fire and fury and life—as does Simone herself in archival recordings.
The Nina Simone (played by Sydney Charles) who sings and talks her way through Christina Ham’s biographical stage show at Northlight Theatre is almost as riveting as the original who you can see today on YouTube. Charles captures Simone’s fascinating stage presence, at once guarded and openhearted, fierce and vulnerable—she’s angry as hell if still hoping for something better. But Ham’s play, though entertaining, disappoints. In lieu of writing of either a jukebox-style musical revue or a dramatic stage bio, Ham delivers up something in between, a 90-minute discussion of Simone’s work and the civil rights movement, interrupted from time to time with songs from Simone’s repertoire sung by the cast. These songs, under the musical direction of Daniel Riley, are well rendered, but also a reminder of how wonderful it would be to hear more of Simone. v