The Ladies of Karamu's Simply Simone are Simply Spectacular

Community Theatre

Review by: Kevin Kelly

Eunice Kathleen Waymon (21 February 1933 – 21 April 2003), better known by her stage name Nina Simone, was an American singer-songwriter, pianist, arranger, and civil rights activist widely associated with jazz music. Simone aspired to become a classical pianist while working in a broad range of styles including classical, jazz, blues, soul, folk, rhythm and blues, gospel, and pop. One of the true divas of the 20th century and a genuine musical powerhouse, she defined a generation and defied classification. 

Simply Simone The Music of Nina Simone is constructed as a presentation of Nina Simone's life. Created by David Grapes and Robert Neblett, with Music arrangements by Vince Di Mura. Her path is narrated by 4 performers who describe the facts of her life, descriptions of her environment, affairs of her heart, and share the celebration of her music. The 4 performers who transcendently tell this story and breathe fresh life and interpretation into the music are Mariama Whyte*, Sheffia Randall Dooley*, CorLesia Smith, and Mary-Francis R. Miller. Based on the success of the initial run of the show, Karamu decided to bring it back to join in celebrating the Grand Reopening of the Jelliffe Theatre.

I had heard of Nina Simone but didn't really know anything about her life. My first introduction to her was a Netflix documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?. An incredible look at the artist, where you find that she was as vulnerable as she was dynamic. So I was thrilled to see that I was going to get a chance to hear the music live, and performed by artists that would wrap their souls around the music, and indeed they did.

As the show opens, I am taken by the soulful harmonies coming forth from these fierce women of color. Each performer representing a separate time and character in Nina's life. Together, blending and gathering energy like a spiritual hurricane over the ocean. Hurricane season has come early, and these ladies are delivering some major Nina realness.

My first wow moment comes from the song "To Be Young, Gifted, and Black." Just incredibly performed. The power of telling someone to take ownership of your gifts, your color, and your youth, and move forward with purpose. You also can't ignore the audience interacting with the songs, and their lyrics. Constant feedback, and emotional bursts reacting to the lyrics that become triggers for joy, pain, faith, and hope. There are many powerful moments created by this quartet of soulful love and professional execution.

Another moment of WOW comes from Whyte, when she turns to the audience, points, and sings "I Put a Spell on You," You could feel the goosebumps and the entire theatre become spellbound, literally. I am telling you, she killed that song, and turned it into an occasion of Hell Yes, and Yass. The quality of the vocals, and interpreted acting choices should be served piping hot for days. It is the first time I have seen her perform, but I know I haven't seen skill like that in a long time.

Dooley brings her sultry voice to the occasion, and her smile that should be registered as a national treasure. Her innate communication with the material and the audience is on full blast. Her songs strike celebration and joy, but then, she can turn introspective such as "Alone Again Naturally." Dynamic performer. She embodies immense charm and knows exactly when to tap directly into the dynamic moments.

Smith is a fireball. Her striking appearance and joyful energy are hard not to notice. Her voice is crisp and soulful and radiates confidence and showwomenship.
Her rendition of "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" showed her incredible versatility. Simply a joy to watch. Also, she can certainly rock a silver dress for sure.

The beautiful addition to the return engagement of this production is Miller. She is divine. Her voice has a quality of velvet soul. She captures the innocence of Nina, and adeptly processes a young woman who is harboring an immense talent. Her simplistic approach to the music and phrasing is a beautiful occasion.

These ladies are so worth the trip to learn and listen to the brilliance of Nina Simone. Each beautiful performer is equipped with all the artistic weapons to creatively perform each of the songs weaving in all the emotional requirements that are necessary to tell the entire story of each song.

The ladies are spectacular.

I do have constructive feedback on the production side. I found occasionally that there were sound issues. Not enough to ruin anything, however. mics were not always turned on when singers started to sing. Also, there needs to be a sound check because, at times when the ladies are belting or taking us all to church, the sound becomes muffled. So, is the problem in the mixing, or the mic placement? I don't know, but it needs to be addressed. Also, the spotlight work needs to be tightened up. Watching spots find the singers, or turning up the lights late on a solo, or watching a spot turned on too early and then watch it travel across the stage to hit the target, is not acceptable. I wish there had been another way to create location references, besides the spinning columns on the sides. Having the actors moving these time and again, seemed to mix a bit with the flow. Also, the lighting could have been more creative to create more dramatic area work and variance.

This being said, the evening is a complete win because of the performances of these ladies of soul.

And speaking of WIN, the band led by Ed Ridley, Jr is on FIRE! Brilliant musicianship coming from his direction and feel. His cohorts are equally impressive with Elijah Gilmore on Percussion, Bradford L. McGhee on Guitar, and Kevin Byous on Bass. They are also a part of Nina Simone. Serving up a soundtrack that brings the house to tears that range from emotional to having to start a GoFundMe page to replace the roof that was blown off during the performance. Bravo.

Caroline Jackson Smith has cast well and put on quite an amazing evening of celebration. The pace is tight and is only broken because the audience won't stop applauding, and that is the sing of some good work. Scenic and Costume Design by the creative Inda Blatch-Geib. Costumes were on point, and added to the personality of the piece. Choreographer Treva Offutt gave us some free-form movement that wasn't over done, and stayed in a natural vein. Stage Manager Xavier P. Kahn. Lighting Designer Colleen Albrecht. Sound Design Cyrus Taylor. Technical Director Prophet D. Seay brought the technical elements together nicely.

Congratulations on the new and improved theatre. Best wishes as Phase 2 continues.

Please take a trip to see this show. You will be so happy you did.

*denotes member of Actors Equity Association
Ticket Information
and Promotional Materials

Through August 5th


7:30pm Wednesday
7:30pm Thursdays
7:30pm Fridays
7:30pm Saturdays
3pm Sundays

Runtime: 2h 0m


(216) 795-7070

Karamu House
2355 East 89th Street
Cleveland, OH 44106