“I think part of what is certainly political now is the very act of going to see a play. The theater is designed for random people to come together in a physical time and space, which is already pretty dramatic and revelatory, to have it not be on-demand, not be scrollable on your phone, not be downloadable, but in person, with strangers, and we turn our attention to a life that’s not ours. And even the very act, no matter what the play’s about, that act in itself, has empathetic qualities. That’s the gift of theater. That is the primal source of its power. It is a community builder.” Lauren Gunderson, RDU on Stage, 3/24/19
I have to admit that although I’ve seen many plays with sociopolitical themes, I’ve never quite viewed the very act of going to the theater as “political” per se until now. That’s because PlayMakers’ current production of Howard L. Craft’s play No Fear and Blues Long Gone: Nina Simone is relentless in its pursuit to educate, inspire, and propel its audience forward.
Nina Simone is considered one of the most influential artists of the 20th century and a hero of the Civil Rights Movement. She was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year, and her childhood home in Tryon, North Carolina was designated a national treasure by The National Trust for Historic Preservation last summer. Consequently, there seems to be a newfound awakening of sorts to her music and story, which Craft knows a bit about.
In 2012, the Stone Center at UNC-Chapel Hill commissioned Craft to write a short piece to accompany its exhibition Nina Simone … What More Can I Say?. At the time, Craft recruited PlayMakers’ company member Kathryn Hunter-Williams to direct and recording artist Yolanda Rabun to take on the role of Simone. This new play, No Fear and Blues Long Gone, was born out of that work, and Craft has collaborated once again with Hunter-Williams and Rabun for this production.
Craft’s script is poetic and profound. It’s not a jukebox musical nor is it a revue. It is a play with music that steers clear from disingenuous bio-musical conventions. Rabun as Simone is a dynamo. She commands every inch of the stage and cradles Simone’s essence with reverence. Her voice fills the Keenan space with an array of colors and control in what very well could be a career-defining moment. Design elements punctuate pivotal moments in Simone’s life tellingly, and Hunter-Williams’ staging is engaging.
It is clear from the start that Rabun, Hunter-Williams, and Craft have resurrected Simone as a call to arms. This is a modern-day woman who has come back from the hereafter because she has a lot to say, and there is an urgency in her message that feels political without being preachy. It’s a kind of activism rooted in PlayMakers’ long history dating back to Paul Green, and I have a feeling Dr. Simone would approve.
The PlayMakers Repertory Company production of No Fear and Blues Long Gone: Nina Simone runs through Sunday. All performances are sold out, however, there is another production scheduled to open November 7th at Fayetteville State University’s Seabrook Auditorium. For more information, text NO FEAR to 313131 to get updates about the play and upcoming performances. Standard text and data rates may apply.
Listen to my RDU on Stage podcast interview with Howard L. Craft, Yolanda Rabun, and Kathryn Hunter-Williams on Apple podcasts, your favorite provider, or right here on the RDU on Stage website (click here).