Black Diva Power is a confronting and fascinating history lesson about a remarkable performer during the turmoil of the civil rights era in the ’60s and early ’70s.
Playwright Neil Cole, known for his deep knowledge of the civil rights movement, has framed the singer’s songs in a play which centres on the friendship between Simone (played by Australian jazz singer Ruth Rogers-Wright) and young playwright and activist Lorraine Hansberry.
The show starts with an ending: musical director and solo pianist Warren Wills playing the instantly recognisable bouncy intro to the hit “My Baby Just Cares For Me”, which Simone (Rogers-Wright) is singing at the end of a show.
UK born and Melbourne-based Rogers-Wright sings in her own style, very much like Simone, but with a flatter, jazz edge and, if it is possible, greater mood shifts and swings. Her voice has the deep richness the audience came to hear, although the stylised diction made it difficult at times to pick up the lyrics in a performance that put substance over entertainment.
Adorned with gold from head to toe, Rogers-Wright was a stunning visual presence and played Simone with great poise while still portraying her unconventional eccentricity.
Hansberry slowly but surely convinced, even manipulated, an initially reluctant Simone to write and sing signature tunes of protest to her people rather than just perform to segregated white audiences. Simone herself experienced discrimination and was rejected by the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, which ended her dream of being a classical pianist. She also lived at a time of much violence against black people and their leaders. The play is essentially about her transformation from an entertainer to a leader in the civil rights movement.
Black Power Diva included many of Simone’s black-power songs, including “Mississippi Goddam” (about the murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers and the Birmingham bombing), “Four Women” (about the stereotyping of African-American women), “Strange Fruit” (about the lynching of black men), and “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” (inspired by the Hansberry play of the same name). Rogers-Wright’s voice and soul seemed to lift during these songs, reflecting her deep passion for Simone, whom she had met and seen in concert.
Warren Wills played with great style and flair, and injected a classical feel to the songs – a strong influence in Simone’s music.
Rogers-Wright appeared at the end as herself and treated the audience to the standards “Feeling Good”, “I Put a Spell On You” and a rousing gospel version of “House of the Rising Sun”.
Having been introduced in my youth to the wonderful songs and amazingly soulful alto voice of Nina Simone, I looked forward to this tribute to the great artist. In the end, I was both enlightened and entertained.
Ruth Rogers-Wright’s season at the Artspace has now finished. The Adelaide Cabaret Festival continues until June 21.
For more stories and reviews, see InDaily’s 2014 Adelaide Cabaret Festival hub.