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PlayMakers to produce one-woman show about NC music legend and activist Nina Simone

Playmaker's newest production tells the story of influential North Carolina native Nina Simone.

Yolanda Rabun.jpeg

Headshot of Yolanda Rabun who will be starring in "No Fear and Blues Long Gone: Nina Simone" as Nina Simone.

The newest show premiering at PlayMakers Repertory Company got its start on an old porch in Tryon, North Carolina — the childhood home of North Carolina native and Grammy Award nominated musician Nina Simone.

PlayMakers Repertory Company will be putting on the one-woman play with music “No Fear and Blues Long Gone: Nina Simone,” detailing the artist's life, from Aug. 21 to Aug. 25. 

Playwright Howard Craft had originally been commissioned to write a short dramatic piece in 2012 for the opening of a Nina Simone exhibit in the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History.

Craft is the Piller Professor of the Practice at the UNC-Chapel Hill Writing for the Stage and Screen program. He is teaching two classes at UNC this semester: one focused on dramatic podcast writing and another on African American literature.

The show's director, Kathryn Hunter-Williams, was indispensable in creating the play, Craft said.  

“I would not have been able to pull this together without Kathryn Hunter-Williams as the director. She has been amazing and she has been with us since the beginning. She has been incredible in taking things a lot further than they would have ever gone,” Craft said.

While Craft was creating the show, he saw actor and singer Yolanda Rabun at a local show in Durham, and Craft knew he had found his Nina Simone.

“I didn’t even know she was a vocalist at the time, just on her presence and her acting I thought that for what we were planning she would be perfect,” Craft said. After casting Rabun, Craft ended up expanding the production for its eventual debut at the Stone Center.

Craft and Rabun have been engaged in projects to save Simone’s childhood home for the last seven years, now designated a national treasure by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. 

Rabun performed a version of the dramatic piece on Nina Simone’s porch in 2018 where, according to Rabun, it got the attention of Carly Jones, the music director of the North Carolina Arts Council. Jones said she insisted the play needed to be revived. 

“We were really fortunate that Yolanda is a fabulous entertainer with a magnificent voice, and we can see that Howard has created a show where Yolanda has come back from the afterlife to share some of her thoughts with us on what’s going on in the world,” Hunter-Williams said.

The revised production that will be premiering at PlayMakers includes new songs that weren’t included in the 2012 piece. 

“People in this should come see the show because Nina Simone is a North Carolina treasure, and a lot of people aren’t very familiar with the musical legacy of our state unfortunately,” Craft said.

Influential musicians from North Carolina include Pulitzer Prize winner John Coltrane, acclaimed jazz musician Thelonious Monk, four-time Grammy Award winner Roberta Flack and many others.

“I think Howard Craft’s vantage point of Nina Simone is one that has not necessarily been seen, she’s not only telling her story, but it’s like a workshop —  like a life lesson workshop,” Rabun said.

According to Rabun, the play is written to be interactive. When Rabun speaks to the audience as Nina Simone, she expects the audience to speak back to her.

“You’re not just coming to be entertained, someone will walk away with one of the life lessons that she shares through the story, that’s why you should come — there’s a piece of nugget for everyone young and old,” Rabun said.

Rabun believes audience members will also take away messages from the production's title.

“The title of the show is ‘No Fear and Blues Long Gone: Nina Simone’, and I think that one of the lessons is that in order for you to better understand this world and navigate it is to find that moment in life when you can have no fear — and it doesn’t necessarily mean your blues are going to go away — but that freedom of having no fear is what really will help you make it through life,” Rabun said.

Nina Simone was more than just a singer. She was also an activist who was heavily involved in the civil rights and women's rights movements. 

“Strange enough — maybe not even strange — that all the things she was thinking about and singing about and fighting for in the 1960s are things we are fighting for today,” Rabun said.

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According to Rabun, even if you’ve never heard of Nina Simone, her message is widely accessible and powerful. 

“Her words are one of empowerment through her songs, through her lyrics and even through the things she was doing in speeches," Rabun said. "It’s encouraging not only to black people, but to young people, — to anybody who feels they have been oppressed. She is timeless.”

@Aaronjsugarman

arts@dailytarheel.com