Nina Simone Black Diva Power
The singer-songwriter's activism returns to the stage
This article is from 2015.
Australian playwright Neil Cole’s play Nina Simone Black Diva Power imagines the meeting between American music icon Nina Simone and African-American playwright Lorraine Hansberry.
Simone is known as a singer and diva but she was also a passionate political activist. Ruth Rogers-Wright, the Brixton-born, Melbourne-based singer, identifies Hansberry as an important influence: 'She encouraged Nina Simone to use her voice as an instrument for the movement and to inspire people for the Civil Rights Movement.'
Hansberry first found fame with her play A Raisin in the Sun, still regarded as a vital script that gave voice to African-American experience, but her poem 'To Be Young, Gifted, and Black' inspired Simone’s song of the same name. Rogers-Wright explains: 'She asked Nina Simone to finish that poem for her and we all know 'Young, Gifted, and Black', the song. And literally it was finished a few days after Lorraine Hansberry died. And so I think Nina Simone always kept that promise to Lorraine Hansberry. And so that’s why even though she recorded over 600 tunes, if you saw her show she always did 'Mississippi Goddam', she’d always do 'Four Women'. So she’d always put her black thing in which isn’t always necessarily the kind of popular pop message.'
While the piece takes a political angle, it’s not without what made the High Priestess of Soul famous. The play, Rogers-Wright says, is 'basically in a nutshell loads of songs.'
As she prepares to channel Simone, whom she saw perform about five times, Rogers-Wright voices her own personal admiration for a woman who was such a distinctive individual. 'When you think about it she wasn’t selling being the most beautiful woman in a conventional manner, she didn’t have to show her body, she didn’t have to have any gimmicks and that’s kind of what she’s saying, and there’s a message there I think for everybody.' And in Rogers-Wright's continued championing of her artistry and political passion, her legacy is kept alive and singing.
New Town Theatre, Freemason’s Hall, Thu 6 Aug–Sun 30 Aug (not Mon), £14 (£12). Previews Thu 6 & Fri 7 Aug, £7.