To many, singer and Civil Rights legend Nina Simone is already a household name. But for the uninitiated audiences in Houston, The Ensemble Theatre is telling her story in the most intimate way, with the musical Simply Simone.
“It’s such a great piece to do, and I’m so honored for this tribute to such a great American legend, not simply a black legend,” says the show’s director, Patdro Harris. “I’m very excited to tell her story through music. Actually, I grew up with a friend in Atlanta who was part of Nina’s family – so I grew up calling her Aunt Nina.”
What attracted Harris to the script, one the Ensemble has produced twice before, was how the playwright divided the title role into four different parts. “The thing I liked about it most when I read it was that the four women who play Nina Simone, player her at the same time. There’s a child Nina, there’s a classic young artist one, there’s the activist one and one from her later years. I love the way the story is told. Imagine if you could tell your younger self something, knowing what you know now. It’s not like a revue, it’s definitely a true musical.”
Featuring some of Simone’s biggest hits, including “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” “The Look of Love,” and “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” Harris had to find a music director to bring these tunes to life under the stage lights. Thankfully, he’s got Chika Kaba Ma’Atunde. “This is actually Chika and myself’s 20th show at the Ensemble Theatre. And there’s also an educational aspect of this, we tell the actresses, you can go work anywhere in the world. In New York, in Paris, in LA. But we try to uphold the standard, ‘We like you, but not at work. Do yo job.’ In the ten years we’ve been here, this theater certainly has grown and we have done things to push the art, and the artist forward.”
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As a team, he and Ma’Atunde are making efforts to be true to Simone’s catalogue, but offer something listeners aren’t simply going to get off the radio. “We’re not attempting to duplicate Nina’s sound, working with Chika, our music director,” says Harris. “These ladies work their tails off. From beginning to end, it is non-stop. And there’s a surprising emotional value to it - it’s heavy. How it drains the body, like wow. Songs like “Mississippi God Damn,” “Strange Fruit” or “Backlash” – I wish those songs were only part of American history. Unfortunately, they’re still front page news.”
In the end, Harris is confident those who turn out to see the production will have a wide variety of reactions. “I’m surprised that everyone who sees this tends to be pushed toward emotions. You come in expecting one thing, and you get something else. I love watching people on the journey of the show – sometimes they cry, they talk. But everyone after words, they’re very amenable. It’s a bit like being a pastor at the end of service. It opens you up to conversations, and meeting people you would never know. It’s really a life-changing piece.”
Even 14 years after her passing, Harris’s "Aunt Nina" is still bringing the community together.
Performances are scheduled to run from June 29-July 30 at 8 p.m. at 3535 Main. For information, visit ensemblehouston.com. $38-42.