No Fear and Blues Long Gone: Nina Simone


Through Sunday, Aug. 25

7:30 p.m. Wed.–Fri./2 & 7:30 p.m. Sat.–Sun., sold out 

Kenan Theatre, Chapel Hill

As she did more than once in her storied career, Nina Simone got the jump on us Thursday night, at the start of Raleigh playwright Howard L. Craft’s biographical one-woman show, No Fear and Blues Long Gone: Nina Simone, which opens PlayMakers’ second-stage season.

In a spotlight, the iconic singer and songwriter (remarkably portrayed and sung by Yolanda Rabun) sidled down the aisle from the back of Kenan Theatre, wearing designer Jennifer Guadagno’s sublime silver evening dress and crooning the hypnotic, confrontational torch song “Do I Move You,” a B-side from 1967, as a jazz trio vamped on the stage.

If any doubt remained about who was in command as Simone worked the room during her descent, it evaporated as she dictated the terms of this engagement from center stage, after dismissing her mercurial reputation as a performer: “What I’m not here to do is talk about every incident in my life that may have gotten some press,” she said. “I’m here to talk about freedom, something I fought for my whole life but only felt like I never truly had.”

The broad sampling of Simone’s songs, including “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” a kinetic “Mississippi Goddam,” and the plaintive “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” could only have been stronger had sound designer Brandon Reed shown less restraint and allowed Rabun’s powerful voice and band to fill the room.

Between the songs, Craft’s sensitive script crisply touches on formative biographical details. Simone criticizes her childhood persona as a sheltered prodigy but also protectively nurtures it. She details her outspokenness and work during the civil rights movement—and the price she paid for it.

But the most breathtaking moment comes when Simone defends her decision to marry Andrew Stroud, her abusive husband and manager, concluding, “It wasn’t your scales to weigh.” After poignant interactions with a father who betrayed her and a “sanctified black mama” who judged her for playing “devil’s music,” Simone assesses her lifelong struggles with self-worth before embracing hard-won freedom in a triumphant closing take on “Feeling Good.” Rabun’s authoritative performance left us feeling the same way.

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