(Actress/singer Yolanda Rabun portrays Nina Simone)
By Jerome Langston
“She truly embodies Nina Simone,” says actress/director Kathryn Hunter-Williams, during a recent phone chat, in anticipation of the play with music that she’s directing for the Virginia Stage Company in May. The actress, who previously starred in last season’s excellent, Every Brilliant Thing, is referring to powerhouse singer Yolanda Rabun, who portrays the iconic singer/songwriter/activist in No Fear and Blues Long Gone: Nina Simone, a season extra show that closes out VSC’s current 44th season. Written by Howard L. Craft, the play imagines Nina Simone having returned to these current times and imparting some much-needed wisdom upon the audience.
The play features some of Simone’s best-known songs within her musically expansive catalogue, including “Feeling Good” and “Young, Gifted and Black,” as well as a few obscure gems for good measure. Yolanda performs the songs as Nina and is accompanied onstage by a talented cadre of musicians. “Yolanda’s an amazing jazz vocalist,” raves Hunter-Williams. “She’s just got this incredible voice.” The one-woman show runs about ninety minutes without an intermission and has earned critical praise since it first premiered back in 2012, as a much smaller piece that was commissioned to accompany a dope exhibition of the cultural icon’s personal letters, and other rare personal items…at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Nina Simone was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in the very small town of Tryon, North Carolina, on February 21, 1933. Her family was quite poor—and she was one of eight kids, but she was also encouraged and supported by them to pursue a career as a concert pianist. Simone was quite a prodigy on piano, and her musical talent would eventually lead to her first album release in 1959, Little Girl Blue. She’d become Nina Simone a few years earlier to keep her deeply religious family from knowing that she was playing the “devil’s music” at an Atlantic City bar.
Over the next several decades, Simone would record for numerous labels, and explore an impressive range of musical genres; including jazz, classical, gospel, R&B, and others…while also gaining global attention as a civil-rights activist, who wrote and performed protest music during the tumultuous sixties. The gifted singer/songwriter experienced both racism and sexism, which in part led to many years living abroad, in places like Paris and Liberia. She passed away at her home in France, in April 2003 at the age of 70. Since her passing, Simone has received many posthumous honors, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018. She is often cited as a major influence by a wide range of popular music artists, and she’s also been the subject of recent film projects about her fascinating life. “I think about the remarkable journey of this black woman, who came from this teeny tiny town, but was a prodigy,” says Hunter-Williams, when asked how she regards the legend. “So for me, she represents both courage and vision.”
Later in the day, I reach out to Yolanda, and we chat about Nina’s influence upon her as an artist, and what the journey has been like portraying her in this show. “She was a messenger,” says Yolanda. “It is one of a griot, a storyteller. The beauty of Howard Craft and what he did with the script, is that he allows anything to happen.”
“He’ll take a lot of the common things that are happening currently in life, from recent history, and allow Nina, the character, to deliver the message. And that’s the true beauty of this role,” says Yolanda, who remarkably is not only an Equity actor, but is also a recording artist and licensed corporate attorney, with a Juris Doctorate from Boston College Law. Regarding the songs that are performed, Yolanda tells me that they “introduce some tunes” from Nina Simone that were lauded, but not necessarily known by many. That creative decision, which was a choice made by Howard—has allowed the actress and singer to forge a deeper bond with the music. And soon, that music will likely be released in some capacity, as the show’s songs have been recorded for an upcoming project.
The award-winning attorney has been with the show since its humble beginning back in 2012. And after being remounted in 2018, which allowed it to largely grow into what it is now, Yolanda has discovered how to embody Ms. Simone, while allowing her own vocal artistry a safe space to live and grow. She credits her director with helping her to further develop the character of Nina Simone.
“She is brilliant…just amazing,” says Yolanda about Hunter-Williams. “There’s so much respect I have for her, as an artist, and as a director.” The two have developed a shorthand now, where they understand what the other is feeling regarding the work. “I speak to the audience… She’s just given me a lot of room to play, and a lot of room to deliver this message. And it’s a beautiful message.”
WANT TO GO?
“No Fear and Blues Long Gone: Nina Simone”
Virginia Stage Company