A few nights ago I saw a premiere presentation of “Nina: A Portrayal of the Life and Music of Nina Simone” in an intimate theater setting in North Park. This work was created over a five year period and directed by Calvin Manson. It is a deeply moving, well executed and revelatory piece of theater, and the last day to see it is Sunday May 23. Read about it HERE.
Nina Simone was an extraordinarily talented pianist, songwriter, singer and civil rights activist. After her application to the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music was rejected, she began playing piano and then singing in Atlantic City nightclubs in the early 60’s. Simone’s music and identity evolved against the backdrop of the civil rights movement. She wrote “” as a response to the death of Medgar Evers and the bombing of an Alabama church in which four young children died.
This particular play is a powerful confluence of the playwright’s nuanced understanding of his subject and the songs that Ms. Simone wrote and performed. Many of the songs were chosen to convey a sense of how a young,what it meant to grow up Black in America.
A particularly memorable moment came at the beginning of the play. One of the four actresses taking on different time periods in her life spoke about how a young Eunice gave a recital in which her parents were told that they could not sit in the front row in that segregated building in Tryon North Carolina. Eunice said “They get a front seat, or we don’t have a concert.”
Imagine that- you are proud parents of a gifted child. And you can’t sit up close where your child can see that pride in your eyes, your smiles of encouragement and love. That’s the twisted reductionism of segregation. There were people in that theater who didn’t have to draw upon imagination or a sense of shared humanity to bridge the distance between art and reality; they remembered, they knew what it was like. Many others in the room were born after the sixties. A number of us, civil rights activists during the 60’s but not African American were also present. I don’t think any of us left the performance without a visceral awareness of institutionalized racism’s poisonous effect upon our collective soul.
Seated there in the theater, my mind kept moving back and forth between the play and an interview I saw a few days ago on the Rachel Maddow Show with Libertarian/Tea Party candidate Dr. Rand Paul. Paul won the Congressional Republican primary in Kentucky this past week. Maddow pressed Paul to express his views on the Civil Rights Act. While Paul supported the governmental/public aspects of the act, he conveyed a distinct Libertarian unease over one section. He argued that it impinged on the private sector’s Constitutional protection of free speech, even if it that speech is racist. Here’s a portion of the section which raises Libertarian concerns:
“TITLE II–INJUNCTIVE RELIEF AGAINST DISCRIMINATION IN PLACES OF PUBLIC ACCOMMODATION
SEC. 201. (a) All persons shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, and privileges, advantages, and accommodations of any place of public accommodation, as defined in this section, without discrimination or segregation on the ground of race, color, religion, or national origin.
(b) Each of the following establishments which serves the public is a place of public accommodation within the meaning of this title if its operations affect commerce, or if discrimination or segregation by it is supported by State action:
(1) any inn, hotel, motel, or other establishment which provides lodging to transient guests, other than an establishment located within a building which contains not more than five rooms for rent or hire and which is actually occupied by the proprietor of such establishment as his residence;
(2) any restaurant, cafeteria, lunchroom, lunch counter, soda fountain, or other facility principally engaged in selling food for consumption on the premises, including, but not limited to, any such facility located on the premises of any retail establishment; or any gasoline station;
(3) any motion picture house, theater, concert hall, sports arena, stadium or other place of exhibition or entertainment; and ….”
I have tried to imagine how Nina Simone, who died in 2003, would react to this particular Libertarian issue with the Civil Rights Act, the portion that assured that her proud parents would not be consigned to the back of the room of a segregated recital hall. It is now fifty years later and this is the dialogue we are having within this country?
There is nothing that I can say that is more powerful than this Nina Simone remix of Sinnerman.