Nina Simone

at the Chicago Theatre, July 19

By Ulysses Smith

At the Chicago Theatre earlier this this month, Nina Simone came onstage 45 minutes late, wandered off into the wings for a quarter of her hour-long set, milked the audience for applause after each of her nine songs, and delivered a single encore lasting a minute and a half. While the chumps in the upper balcony (myself included) had paid 25 bucks, Simone didn’t give a damn whether we were delighted or outraged.

When it comes to Nina Simone, this kind of whining misses the point. (If you bumped into Groucho Marx in heaven, would you complain about the cigar smoke?) She is, after all, a diva. Carrying her corpulence with all the primitive force of Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now, she wielded a tribal wand crowned by what looked like a scalp of blond hair, while her audience–the majority of which was white–responded with ecstatic applause.

Simone’s contempt for white America is legendary (appearing at the Village Vanguard in the early 60s, she reportedly singled out the two black people in the room and announced, “I’m singing only to you. I don’t care about the others”), and it’s central to her appeal. Perhaps white liberals will do anything to alleviate their guilt, paying big money to take their turn on the whipping post. Perhaps people naturally gravitate toward those who disdain them. Or perhaps when Simone began her self-imposed exile from the U.S. in 1974, her view of race in America was sealed in amber, guaranteeing that someday the very rage that defined her would become an object of nostalgia.

Disgusted with American racism, frustrated by the staggered progress of the civil rights movement, Simone has spent the last quarter century in various international locales, including Switzerland, Holland, Barbados, and southern France. “I think it’s hopeless for the majority of black people,” Simone told Interview in 1997. “I think the rich are too rich and the poor are too poor. I don’t think the black people are going to rise at all; I think most of them are going to die.” In the same interview she came out strongly against interracial marriage, saying, “I don’t believe in it, and I never have” (despite the fact that her first husband was white). Introducing “Why? (The King of Love Is Dead),” a song about Martin Luther King Jr., Simone told the Chicago Theatre crowd, “I’m going to pay homage to our black martyr–in your country, ’cause I don’t live here no more.”

At 68 she needs assistance getting on and off the stage, yet her entrance brought a standing ovation. When she bent down to her microphone and whispered “hello,” her deep and sultry voice turned what had been a bored, flat-faced crowd into a lunatic horde. By the third song, “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” a middle-aged white woman in an ankle-length skirt was in the aisle doing a spastic dance more suited to a Phish concert. Simone’s voice was cracked and frail at times, but like a weathered face, its flaws were its beauty. Her repertoire has become more condensed, less overtly political and more personal. Freedom, she seems to say, begins with the individual.

Unfortunately, Simone has also exiled herself from all the twists and turns of our struggle with race. Songs inspired by the death of Medgar Evers (“Mississippi Goddam”) and dedicated to people like Marcus Garvey, Paul Robeson, and Lorraine Hansberry conjure up the racial climate of a simpler era. Middle-class whites might be in a position to indulge such a fantasy, but nostalgia is a luxury many blacks can’t afford, which might explain why more of them didn’t turn out to hear her. At the end of the show, Simone got up from her piano and hobbled to the edge of the stage, looking out past the audience. The applause was deafening, but she seemed to be listening to the cheers of a different people, a different time.