The musical career of American pianist Nina Simone has three important events.
The first one happens when a white woman who employs Simone's mother as a maid recognizes that the young black girl is a prodigy. The woman attends a service at the mother's church one Sunday, hears the girl play, and is so impressed that she decides to fund piano lessons.
The piano teacher turns out to be Muriel Mazzanovich. And it's here that something special happens (it's described in the book Princess Noire). The prodigy begins her lessons at the Mazzanovich house. She is told to play with her shoulders, not her wrists, and to spread her fingers in a specific way. She is introduced to Bach. She is treated like what she is—a prodigy—and not like a regular rural black girl.
The imprint of this experience on her personality would prove to be permanent. Mazzanovich has a proper British accent, and looks and sounds like high culture; she treats the young girl as one of her own, a member of the elite of European culture. From Princess Noire: "After her first lesson, [the prodigy] walked home already dreaming of the lessons to come... now she inhabited a larger world."
The next important experience happened when Simone, a pianist with the ambition of reaching the highest regions of classical music, applied for entrance to a top musical school, the Curtis Institute of Music. She did not get in. This was a huge blow. After taking a yearlong break from music, she returned as a pianist in a bar in Atlantic City. The shock of this transition must be appreciated. In fact, Nina Simone was a stage name that hid her real name, Eunice Waymon, from her family (and particularly her mother), who considered jazz to be the devil's music.
Simone's rise to fame begins around this time. As her songs and albums rise on the charts, she enters not the elite of classical- music but of jazz. But it's also important to understand that Simone, despite her gifts and success, never became a member of the jazz establishment in the way, say, Mary Lou Williams did. This is an opinion that will upset many. But I think her classical training made her an outsider to jazz.
The next moment happens in 1963. Simone is now a famous musician, and the intensity of the civil rights movement is increasing. There is the murder of a civil rights activist named Medgar Evers and the bombing of a black church in Birmingham, Alabama, that kills four black girls. Simone is radicalized by these events. The classically trained pianist decides her music has to take a new direction.
The first such work to emerge from this period is "Mississippi Goddam." It's a shocking confusion of music. It's not soul or blues, but a show tune in the vein of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's The Threepenny Opera. Simone interprets her black American rage through German dance music. (Indeed, the album on which the tune appears, Nina Simone in Concert, includes a cover of "Pirate Jenny," The Threepenny Opera's second-most-popular song.) The rage Simone expressed on "Mississippi Goddam" was so pure that even black radio stations wanted nothing to do with it.
This rejection by the black community takes the form of one of the four characters in the 2016 musical play Nina Simone: Four Women by Christina Ham. This character is called Sarah, and though her name and tone of blackness ("my skin is black") are taken directly from the character of Aunt Sarah whom Nina Simone refers to in her 1966 classic "Four Women," the Sarah in the play is not a revolutionary. Indeed, she is the complete opposite. She is conservative, and she constantly criticizes the Nina Simone character.
A production of Nina Simone: Four Women, directed by Valerie Curtis-Newton, plays at Seattle Repertory Theatre from April 26 to June 2.
As mentioned, one of the "Four Women" Simone describes in her song of that name is Aunt Sarah (who is black-black). The second woman, Sephronia, is light-skinned-black; the third, Sweet Thing, is tan-black; and the fourth, Peaches, is brown-black. In Ham's play, Simone takes the place of Peaches.
The importance of Sarah's criticism of Nina/Peaches cannot be underestimated. And it's not that one side is wrong and the other right. It's more about Nina's own stormy and complicated relationship not so much with the black community but her own blackness—which, if she had become a famous concert pianist, might have been (rightly) ignored. But the society she lived in forced her to be black, to play jazz in seedy clubs, to sing popular songs, to adopt a name tied with the devil himself, and to explode with rage when four black Alabama girls were killed by the Ku Klux Klan.
The play opens with Nina Simone playing "I Loves You, Porgy," the signature tune of her pre-protest-song era. The performance is disrupted by the cries of the four girls in the church bombing's explosion. In the second act, Nina/Peaches meets Sarah in the ruins of the church (which represents black spirituality). It soon becomes clear that Sarah, a committed member of the church, is opposed to Nina's radicalization. "I ain't into that radical business," Sarah says. The question at the core of the play becomes clear: Do we rebuild the church or destroy the current racist society?
Eventually, the other two women enter the ruins and, from their own perspectives, diversify the discussion. But it's the rejection of Simone's transformation from singer to revolutionary that defines the play and also the second half of her life. What Simone demanded in her radical period was not just the end of racism but the destruction of American society. From top to bottom, nothing was good about it. We had to begin again and construct a whole new way of living, loving, and communicating.
When it became clear to her that the United States was never going to change, Simone abandoned this country and moved to Europe, back to her spiritual home, to those lessons on Bach by the English woman who did not recognize her color but her gifts. Simone died in Southern France, in the Bouches-du-Rhône.