There's only one Nina Simone: Weekend of tributes opens at UNC | Arts

There's only one Nina Simone: Weekend of tributes opens at UNC

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  • Sonja Haynes Stone Center

Five words: Zoe Saldana is Nina Simone.

Those words have already summoned the disgust of fans, admirers and even Simone family members, who don’t think casting the light-skinned, Avatar ingénue as the late, legendary artist is a good idea.

The New York Times recently reported that one woman posted an online petition that called for the producers of an upcoming biopic to cast someone who could pass for the darker-skinned Simone. Meanwhile, Simone Kelly, Simone’s daughter (who wrote on Simone’s official Facebook page that the project was unauthorized and Simone’s estate was not asked to participate in the film), stated she would have preferred Oscar nominee Viola Davis or Kimberly Elise as acceptable Simone stand-ins.

Durham playwright/ poet Howard Craft already thinks the casting of Saldana is “the worst casting in the world.”
“I know I like Zoe,” says Craft, “but she’s no Nina Simone.”

Craft should know who would be essential to play Simone, a native of Tryon, N.C., considering he’s written a one-woman play about the woman that will run this weekend at UNC’s Sonja Haynes Stone Center, as part of a retrospective exhibit on Simone.

Both the play and the exhibit are titled Nina Simone … What More Can I Say? Beginning tonight, the exhibit will be on display until Nov. 30. Culled from three different collections (including a collection from her brother, San Diego civil-rights activist Dr. Carrol Waymon), the exhibit will feature photos, LPs, even correspondence between her and her brother.

According to Stone Center director Joseph Jordan, this is a chance for people in her home state to discover Simone and her legacy. “She’s one of those people that you could arguably go over to France or London, and those young people there, as well as the general public, would know more about her than we do,” says Jordan.

“So, in a lot of ways, she’s sort of that story in the African-American community—whether it’s Paul Robeson, whether it’s James Baldwin—that, every now and then, we discover these individuals. And she’s one of those people that we think should be rediscovered and never placed away again.”

The play, on the other hand, will only have two shows this weekend: Saturday night at 7 and Sunday afternoon at 2. The play, which stars actress and vocalist Yolanda Rabun as Simone, is a one-woman show that Jordan says will be both autobiographical and speculative.

“In other words, what if she was alive today?” muses Jordan. “What if she could Tweet, you know, with all of the stuff that’s in her head? So, you see all of those kinds of speculative items in this theater piece.”

Craft worked on the play for several months, reading autobiographies as well as pulling up articles and looking at interviews and performances Simone did. It was a challenge that led to many fascinating revelations.

“I mean, she done shot a couple of people, dog!” exclaims Craft. “So, her life is so expansive, the challenge is trying to figure out what parts to pull out that contain the best picture of who she was as a person. And the play is my attempt at that.”

Ultimately, the entire exhibit is both a tribute to Simone and a lively example of how the woman inspires and influences to this day. Hell, Meshell Ndegeocello’s new album, Pour une ame souveraine (For a sovereign soul): A dedication to Nina Simone, is a straight-up Simone salute, containing 14 Simone tracks.

“By and large, we didn’t do this for it to be a history lesson,” says Jordan. “This person’s work is much too alive to say that it’s only a history lesson, all right? It’s a little bit more than that.

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