African Heritage Cultural Arts Center, Miami, FL - February/March 2016
Recommended: 2017 Carbonell Awards, Miami, FL
Theatrical Outfit, Atlanta, GA - 2017
Recommended: 2017 Suzi Bass Awards, Atlanta, GA
The Ensemble Theatre, Houston, TX - 2017
Little Theatre of the Rockies, Greeley, CO - 2017
Karamu House Theatre, Cleveland, OH - 2017-18 season
The Essential Theatre, Washington, DC - Dates TBA
Suzi Bass Awards, Atlanta, GA
Recommended Production, Theatrical Outfit, 2017
Carbobell Awards, South Florida
Recommended Production, African Heritage Cultural Arts Center, 2016
Ostrander Awards, Memphis, TN
Carlton Leake, Music Direction - Nominee (2015), Hattiloo Theatre
Keia Johnson, Leading Actress in a Musical - Nominee (2015), Hattiloo Theatre
"On June 29, The Ensemble Theatre opened the final production for their celebratory 40th anniversary season with a bang, a belt, and a whole lotta sass! With its powerhouse vocalists, entertaining and sassy storytellers, and vast musical variation, SIMPLY SIMONE is anything but simple.
A musical revue written by Robert Neblett and David Grapes, SIMPLY SIMONE tells the story of southern diva and pianist prodigy turned jazz megastar, civil rights activist, and esteemed African American musical icon. In the social and political climate of her time, Nina Simone, known from birth as Eunice Waymon, challenged those who stood in her way as she broke down societal barriers and used her recognizably soulful and powerful voice to fight for "Young Gifted and Black" individuals and people of color in a time where segregation and racial violence were unmistakably apparent.
...SIMPLY SIMONE takes the audience on a winding musical journey from classical, gospel, and jazz to blues, rock n' roll, Broadway, and back. This production is no small undertaking for the four ladies who portray the "High Priestess of Soul", Miss Simone, as this performance is packed to the brim with as much music as the four talented divas can handle. SIMPLY SIMONE contains 32 total storytelling songs of joy and pain, acceptance and rejection, heartbreak and love, death and celebration of life, while telling the entirety of Nina's story with truth and heart.
...Samantha West (Nina One) acted as young Eunice Waymon with picture-perfect innocence and childlike naivety while bringing sweetly sung vocals to the performance. The audience watched Nina Two, portrayed by Lakeisha Randle in a classy--yet sassy--fashion as she moved from child prodigy to seasoned musical professional, starting by singing and playing piano in bars. Teacake Ferguson took the stage by storm with her mighty vocals and attitude--the perfect choice of actress to play the role of Nina Three, who had begun fighting for equality and using her voice for change and empowerment. Rita Hughes delighted in her more mature role as Nina Four as she navigated love, motherhood, death, and her relationship with her father with the same boldness and tenacity the audience had learned to expect from Nina . All four ladies wowed with their vocal strength and talent, especially when they were found blending together as one Nina in their seamless, reverberating harmonies."
"Where the Outfit’s transcendent “Simply Simone” rises so boldly above the norm — and truly soars — is in how imaginatively and evocatively envisioned it is by director/choreographer Patdro Harris, how beautifully accompanied under the musical direction of Chika Kaba Ma’atunde (leading a three-piece band), and how tremendously it’s acted and vocalized by a quartet of uniformly magnificent performers: Marliss Amiea, Tina Fears, Chani Maisonet and Chelsea Reynolds, representing different stages of Simone’s persona.
Harris’ co-stars function as a perfectly orchestrated ensemble — complementing one another in their many moments together with the sort of “elegance, grace and poise” that was characteristic of Simone, often in striking and resounding four-part harmony, and each of them shines just as brightly and skillfully in her own solos.
In the same way that there isn’t the slightest weak link in the cast, virtually every one of the show’s 30 or so greatest hits is a highlight. Standouts among the group numbers include “Balm in Gilead,” “Why?” and “Take Me to the Water,” the lively “Liberian Calypso” and a lilting “Here Comes the Sun.” Among a few duets, Maisonet and Reynolds register with a memorable “I Loves You Porgy,” Reynolds and Amiea with an equally captivating “Alone Again, Naturally.”
There’s Fears’ solos “I Put a Spell on You,” “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” and “Mississippi Goddam.” Amiea’s “Trouble in Mind” and “Sinnerman.” Maisonet’s “Love Me or Leave Me” and “Strange Fruit.” Reynolds’ “Beautiful Land” and “The Other Woman.”
Despite the fairly formulaic framework, Harris and company otherwise deliver an embarrassment of riches, and of the highest order."
Review by Bert Osborne, Atlanta Constitution-Journal
"The multiple aspects of Simone are powerfully captured in Simply Simone: The Music of Nina Simone, an impressive, intense and sometimes thrilling biographical revue running through March 13 at Miami’s African Heritage Cultural Arts Center. Created by David Grapes II, Robert Neblett and Vince di Mura, the show contains 32 numbers sung by four women portraying Simone at different ages, though that concept is fluid enough to allow the performers to sing solos as well as songs involving all of them. And what sheer vocal beauty this quartet brings to the stage of the center’s Wendell Narcisse Performing Arts Theater....
What makes Simply Simone so worth seeking out, though, are the cast’s haunting, moving renditions of songs associated with Simone. You’ll hear her first hit, the aching I Loves You Porgy from Porgy and Bess. The uplifting anthem, To Be Young, Gifted and Black, suggested by the title of her friend Lorraine Hansberry’s unfinished play, is there. The mournful, disturbing Strange Fruit, sung most famously by Billie Holiday, is part of the show. Butler-Rahming sings a gorgeous version of Jacques Brel’s Ne Me Quitte Pas. You’ll hear Sinner Man, The Look of Love, Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood, Here Comes the Sun— and so many more.
Simply Simone is enlightening entertainment that serves as a reminder of several things: a powerful artist’s travails and triumphs; the distressingly enduring nature of racial conflict; and the ability of a theater company with relatively modest means to create work that impresses and matters."
"...audiences are really responding to the most relevant musical revue you're likely to see any time in the near future."
Interview with Simply SimoneCo-Creator Robert Neblett by Chris Davis, Memphis Flyer
"Hattiloo Theatre’s staging of the musical “Simply Simone” is a wonderful production that tells of Simone’s life not in clinical documentary style, but passionately as befits a complex woman who, early in the show, declares that she’s not a diva, but The Diva.
Four actors play Simone, and it is riveting to hear and see Jackie Murray, Keia Johnson, Rhonda Woodfork and Tymika Chambliss raise their gorgeous voices and embody this driven, gifted, furious, selfish and poetic artist.
One of the pivotal events that put her voice behind the civil rights movement was the horrific 1963 bombing of a black church in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four girls. The event is recounted in agonizing detail in the musical, forcing the disturbing comparisons to the murders last week in South Carolina. Simone’s provocative “Mississippi Goddam” was her response to Birmingham and the murder of Medgar Evers that same year in Jackson, Mississippi, and in this production, the song — with its weirdly perky music — is still chill-inducing.
The four women are almost always in motion throughout, and with few wasted moves. Director/choreographer Patdro Harris keeps it riveting while a tight trio of keyboard, bass and percussion rounds out a performance that works well across the board — lighting, sound and costumes. Don’t miss this well-told, well-sung story of a fascinating woman."
Review from Jon W. Sparks, Commercial Appeal/Go Memphis
Hattiloo's SIMPLY SIMONE Sings and Zings
"Creators Robert Neblett and David Grapes have dedicated themselves to finding the fascinating and complex woman beneath the Diva, and realizing the challenge, they rejected the notion of any one performer ferreting out the "truth" about Nina Simone the Person and Nina Simone the Performer. There are actually four actresses assaying Simone."
"The Hattiloo is nearing the end of its first season in its custom-built space on Overton Square [with] Simply Simone, a small but mighty musical revue about artist, activist, and bon vivant Nina Simone.
Keia Johnson, Rhonda Woodfork, Tymika Chambliss, and Jackie Murray all play Simone at different ages and stages of her career. They are, by turns, naive, worldly, wise, and wanton. And by the time this rhythmically gifted quartet was through singing, dancing, clapping, monologuing, and stomping out beats on the floor with their fists and heels, I felt like I'd spent the evening with one singular, complicated, and completely captivating personality. Highlights include the company's spirited run through "Mississippi Goddam" and a seething take on Billie Holiday's lynching ballad, "Strange Fruit."
Simply Simone is a little show that delivers an oversized wallop. Catch it if you can."
Audience Review of the New Bern Civic Theatre Production (from TripAdvisor.Com)
"My wife and I went here for Valentine's Day to see the play "Simply Simone". It is about the life of singer, Nina Simone. This play was outstanding and the cast did a very good job. I teared-up several times during the play..one was when MLK was assassinated and she sang the "King of Love is Dead". The other was when she found out she had cancer and sung "Take Me to The Water". The last song a rendition of "Here Comes the Sun" was just a feel good song that made me misty-eyed again. The cast was very talented and I would recommend anyone to see this play before its run ends... We plan on going to New Bern Civic Theatre on a regular basis now, because we just enjoyed ours selves and the cast for this play received a Standing Ovation of a production well done and put on. I have told a lot of my friends about this one."
"What a fantastic new musical revue you have created. Our audiences raved about the production. We sold out every single performance and, if the schedule allowed, we could have played many more. Thank you for allowing us to provide the first workshop production of this important new work." Jim Fisher Theatre Chair – University of North Carolina at Greensboro
‘Simply Simone’ is a revue of a fascinating life
By Colin Dabkowski – Buffalo News
If you absolutely have to do a musical revue, it helps when the music you choose tells a story.
On that account, the Paul Robeson Theatre’s rousing production of “Simply Simone: The Music of Nina Simone” delivers a thrilling stream of music popularized or simply sung by the great jazz singer and pianist, whose urgent voice was tinged by the trials and triumphs of a fascinating life. That life is given a swift but thorough airing in David Grapes II and Robert Neblett’s revue, which features four actors, each representing Simone at landmark points in her life.
The show gets off to a strong start with “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl” and “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” probably Simone’s best-known song. We learn about the singer’s upbringing in a small North Carolina town and about her early aptitude as a piano player. That talent takes her all the way to the Julliard School of Music in New York City and later to an audition for the prestigious Curtis Institute.
There, in a devastating and telling scene, Simone is rejected for playing with too much “emotion,” a thinly shrouded assertion of racial prejudice. That segues smoothly into another of Simone’s hits, “Young, Gifted and Black,” sung with a deep sense of defiance by the show’s cast.
Fortunately for Simone, and for modern DJs everywhere, she soldiered on to pursue a musical career that led her to sing and play the blues, jazz, soul and R&B. It also took her deeply into the civil rights movement — and eventually away from a native country whose intolerance she came to despise.
The best performances come in Christian’s understated and sultry performance of “I Put a Spell on You” and others and when the group’s voices combine on gospel songs like “Balm in Gilead” and “Take Me to the Water.”
Shawnell Tillery sings well on pieces like “Love Me or Leave Me” and gives a forceful rendition of “Mississippi Goddam.”
As for the band itself, led by music director Frazier Tom Smith, its opening performance of John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” as well as numbers at intermission and after the show, brought the house down. Especially impressive were Venzella Williams on drums and Leroy Johnson on sax.
Yes, “Simply Simone” is simple, but it knows that about itself. In the end, it gives an intriguing glimpse into the life of one of our most fascinating talents.
Simply Simone @ the Paul Robeson Theatre
ARTVOICE-Reviewed by Anthony Chase
The current Paul Robeson Theatre production, Simply Simone: The Music of Nina Simone, is, as the title suggests, an homage to the singer-activist and self-imposed exile. The good news is that the eager company of four under the direction of Mary Craig, gamely and winningly navigates the show with no hint of hesitation or trepidation. The overall effect is exceedingly enjoyable and provides a clear and articulate rendering of the life and career of one of the later 20th century’s most notable recording artists.
The evening presents us with four aspects of Nina Simone: the child, the activist, the singer, and the exile. Joyce Carolyn, the most seasoned of the performers, expertly maneuvers through her musical numbers and expository sequences as Nina in exile, and unintentionally emerges as the leading lady of the ensemble piece. Her pitches are perfect and her interpretations are both affecting and insightful.
Close behind, Annette Christian brims with personality as Nina the singer, and provides several of the evening’s most appealing musical renderings.
Dominique Seals and Shawnell Tillery, as Nina the child and Nina the activist respectively, give earnest and charismatic performances. Seals scores particularly well on “Love Me or Leave Me.”
Other numbers in the line-up from Simone’s famously eclectic repertoire include “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl,” “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” “I Loves You Porgy,” “I Put a Spell on You,” “Strange Fruit,” “The Look of Love,” and the unforgettable “Mississippi Goddam.”
Simone, who was revealed to suffer from bi-polar disorder after her 2003 death, lived a life of highly dramatic heights, falls, and turnarounds.
The evening… is a fine example of the triumph of live performance …and one leaves feeling uplifted and entirely satisfied. The live band, under the music direction of Frazier Tom Smith, who also plays the keyboard, performs smartly. The crowd was especially enthusiastic over the percussive talents of Vanzella Joy Williams on the drums. David Butler’s set provides an attractive and open playing space, which Craig and her company fill admirably.
Photo Credit OPENING SHOTS: The ladies of Simply Simone. Dominique Seals, who plays young Simone; Robeson artistic director Paulette HVarris; Simply Simone director Mary Craig; exiled Simone, Joyce Carolyn; singer Simone, Annette Christian; and activist Simone, Shawnell Tillery