Nina Simone just won’t die.
Ever since the High Priestess of Soul was called home to join the ancestors in 2003, her legacy has endured throughout pop culture.
And that’s a good thing.
Just ask Laiona Michelle—who wrote and stars in the new show, Little Girl Blue: The Nina Simone Musical, which opened at New Brunswick, N.J.’s George Street Playhouse on Feb. 1.
The veteran actress, whose credits include television dramas Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, The Blacklist and the soap opera All My Children, has been working on the bio-musical for the past five years. And she believes now is a perfect time to unleash a new Nina Simone story on the masses.
“I think about [that] as an artist of color, we are now at the point where we are knocking doors down for inclusion,” Michelle told The Root last week. “That word is being thrown around everywhere with black films, black Hollywood and Broadway. We want our stories to be told where it’s like, ‘Inclusion, inclusion, inclusion!”
“Of course, we deserve and we’re able to do those things, but we get cast out of it all the time and set aside because of our skin color,” she continued. “Nina was experiencing that back then, and I think that when little black girls come to the theater and they see this show, they’re going to know that, ‘She wanted that, and she didn’t get that, but the time is for me to do it now. I belong here.’”
The Alabama State University alumna is not the first artist to take on Simone’s indomitable presence in theatre.
On Broadway, powerhouse vocalists Amber Iman and De’Adre Aziza portrayed her in productions of Soul Doctor and A Night with Janis Joplin, respectively. In 2017, Baltimore’s Arena Stage produced Christina Ham’s popular Nina Simone: Four Women, starring the dynamic Harriet D. Foy in the leading role. Overseas, Olivier Award nominated British actress Josette Bushell-Mingo has mounted the one-woman Nina—A Story About Me and Nina Simone.
Music icons including Aretha Franklin, John Legend and Lauryn Hill have cited her influence, while chart-topping rap acts Jay-Z, Kanye West and Lil Wayne have used samples of her music within their recordings. And add to that the scores of artists who have covered songs she popularized, notably Barbra Streisand, Jennifer Hudson, Mary J. Blige, Bette Midler, Kimberly Nichole, Usher, Vivian Sessoms, Jeremiah Abiah, Meshell Ndegeocello and 12-time Grammy Award nominee Ledisi—who performed a sold out Nina Simone tribute concert at the world famous Apollo Theater last year.
Suffice it to say; Michelle had her work cut out for her.
But with the Devanand Janki-directed Little Girl Blue, she rises to the challenge.
Playing through Feb. 24, the musical follows Simone from after the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. through the late 1970s where she lived and performed in Europe. The title is culled from Simone’s 1958 debut opus, which featured her remake of the 1933 Rodgers & Hart classic of the same name.
Michelle, who made her debut on Broadway in 2015’s Amazing Grace, said she immersed herself in everything she could get her hands on relating to the legendary song stylist, songwriter and staunch civil rights activist who gave the world a catalogue of unforgettable music, including original compositions such as Four Women, See Line Woman, and Young, Gifted and Black and unmatched renditions of standards such as Feeling Good, My Baby Just Cares For Me, and her 1959 Top 20 pop hit I Loves You, Porgy, respectively.
“I’ve always lived with her music, but I think five years ago, she kind of rebirthed in a strong way,” the Springfield, MA native confided. “She was like in the air, really heavy.”
Michelle, who also performed for a few years in the national touring company of The Book of Mormon, revealed the idea to actually portray Simone was sparked after her handler presented potential gigs.
“A couple of shows came across my manager’s desk saying ‘They’re interested and they’re looking for a Nina Simone type.’ And I’m like, “Oh, I’m a type? I’m a Nina Simone type? Really? Really?’” she humorously explained.
“The universe kind of just told me that I was supposed to be doing this and I’ve always been a writer, but this is the first piece that I have created that has actually taken off,” she added.
It is often believed that great artists are worth more dead than when they’re alive.
In Nina Simone’s case, that can be argued to be true since interest in her has resurged since her passing over 15 years ago.
The Tryon, N.C.-born child prodigy (born in 1933) had a tough time in the world after achieving a string of hits in the 1960s.
As explored in the 2015 Emmy Award and Peabody Award winning Netflix documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone, her battles with mental health issues, domestic violence and alcoholism coupled with her unapologetic and outspoken views on racism in America took a toll on her trailblazing career.
The Academy Award nominated film (co-produced by her daughter Lisa Simone Kelly with Jayson Jackson) provided a great blueprint for Michelle, who also count Simone’s own 1992 autobiography, I Put A Spell On You, and soul music authority David Nathan’s 2004 biography Break Down and Let it All Out (with Sylvia Hampton) as focal references.
And then there is Cynthia Mort’s 2016 diva disaster flick, Nina—a controversial biographical feature headlined by Guardians of the Galaxy actress Zoe Saldana, which served as a catalyst for the actress and burgeoning playwright.
“I really desperately wanted to be [considered for] that, and that didn’t happen, which was fine,” Michelle confessed. “Then I realized that I have more power than I think, and I said, ‘Well let me start working on my own thing.’ So I just started creating my own show from there.”
She couldn’t be more proud of seeing her passion project finally up and running.
Like the play’s legendary subject, Michelle considers the work an enduring classic that will have a life beyond the George Street Playhouse.
“When I was a little girl, my mother took me to see a Shakespeare play, and I didn’t know we could talk like that. I just didn’t see myself fitting into that world. So I think it’s important that as artists of color, we create that world for ourselves,” she said. “For me, this is my Shakespeare. This is just as complex, it is just as brave and dark and colorful, and I think that any woman, when I pass this piece on to the next person who does it, she’ll have her hands full.”