When she sings the music of Nina Simone this weekend at the Capri Theater, Ivey-winning actor and singer Regina Marie Williams won’t be playing a role.
“I don’t want to mimic her,” Williams insists. “I don’t want to try and be her. I want to pay homage to her, and capture that delicious dark sound in some of her phrasing. I’m hoping people will forget that Regina is on stage — that they will close their eyes and see the music.”
And what music it is. Simone, who died in 2003, recorded more than 40 albums and wrote hundreds of songs including “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.” Her voice — smoky, soulful, with a loose, fluttery vibrato — is unforgettable once you’ve heard it. Yet she’s not as popular today as she deserves to be, perhaps because some of her great recordings were eclipsed by later versions. Think “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” and you’ll likely hear The Animals or Santa Esmeralda, not Simone, for whom the song was written.
Williams admits that she came late to Simone. She was appearing in “She Loves Me” at the Guthrie in 2005, sharing a room with Christina Baldwin and Ann Michels. They all brought music to listen to during down times. “Christina brought Nina Simone,” Williams remembers. “She said she was raised with it. I felt so deprived. I thought — how come I don’t know this? Her voice piqued my interest. It didn’t have a sex, it didn’t have a color, you couldn’t call it jazz, you couldn’t call it blues.”
‘Black and white and shadows‘
In 2007, while starring as Billie Holiday in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” at the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, Williams thought about trying to create a similar show about Simone’s life and music. Earlier, she had achieved considerable success as Dinah Washington in “Dinah Was” at the Penumbra and the Ordway (and released “Regina Is,” a CD of Dinah Washington songs). Talks with writers ensued, but nothing came together.
“I wanted to know who she was,” Williams says. “Her image struck me as well. I’m looking at one now — the cover of the ‘Princess Noir’ biography. That picture is so striking. Black and white and shadows. To me, that’s who she was. Black and white and shadows, and little flickers of light.”
When Dennis Spears, artistic director of the Capri’s Legends series, approached Williams about doing a show, his idea was Eartha Kitt. Williams started gathering material. Then one night Spears called and Williams’ husband, Tom Wallace, answered the phone. Dennis asked to speak with Williams about Kitt. But Wallace said, “Dennis, she’s singing Nina Simone. She’s been wanting to sing Nina Simone.” Spears’ response was immediate: “I got it! Nina! ‘I Put a Spell on You’!”
A turn to protest
Williams began pulling the show together, choosing the music, reading biographies, and deciding whether to include some of Simone’s more controversial songs, specifically “Mississippi Goddam.” Written as a response to two events — the murder of Medgar Evers in Mississippi, and the bombing of a church in Birmingham, Ala., in which four black children were killed — it signaled Simone’s turn to a singer of protest and political songs. A taste of the lyrics:
Alabama‘s gotten me so upset.
Tennessee made me lose my rest.
And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam …
Hound dogs on my trail
School children sitting in jail
Black cat cross my path
I think every day‘s gonna be my last
Lord have mercy on this land of mine …
“When I first heard the song,” Williams recalls, “I didn’t see the point in using that language. My understanding was that Nina Simone was a Martin Luther King follower and supporter, and this song wasn’t what I expected. But then I read in her autobiography that Medgar Evers’ murder was the match that lit the fuse for her. She was going to get a gun. Her husband said, ‘Nina, you don’t know about killing. You know about singing.’ So she wrote ‘Mississippi Goddam.’ “
At the Capri, we’ll also hear Simone’s first hit, “I Loves You, Porgy,” and other signature songs including “My Baby Just Cares for Me” and “I Put a Spell on You.” (Simone fans will love the encore, which I’m not at liberty to reveal.) Throughout, Williams will try to convey the emotion with which Simone filled her performances. Given her considerable acting chops, that shouldn’t be a problem.
“She sang from that deep place,” Williams says. “Hopefully, we’ll be able to capture the deep sadness and longing in her voice. She put a spell on people — she really moved them.”
Regina Marie Williams in “Nina …I Put a Spell on You,“ with Sanford Moore on piano, Jay Young on bass, and Kevin Washington on drums. 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 19 and 3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 20, Capri Theater, 2027 West Broadway, Minneapolis. $25. Tickets online or by phone at 866-811-4111.