Wednesday, March 30, 2022

 Little Girl Blue--An Electrifying Laiona Michelle

      By Joseph Cervelli

Quite simply Laiona Michelle is electrifying as the late, wonderful Nina Simone in "Little Girl Blue" at the New World Stages. Michelle also wrote the book to the musical which traces Simone's career and personal life told in two concerts that we as the audience a part of.

The first is a 1968 concert at Westbury, NY, in which she was greeted by both enthusiastic fans which we hear cheering along with protesters. It was three days after the assassination of Martin Luther King. The set is designed perfectly by Shoko Kambara has the smoky, lush feeling of a downtown club back in the 60's. And the tremendous sound system is by Twi McCallum. 

The excellent three piece band played by (Mark Fifer, Kenneth Salters and Saadi Zain) are also her sounding board and protector. Not an easy feat as Simone (especially in the second act)  struggles more and more with depression. It is not until much later that it is discovered she suffered from biopolar disease. 

As the show begins she sings the gorgeous "Feeling Good" from "The Roar of the Greasepaint---The Smell of the Crowd." I remember seeing the show and hearing that song the first time sung by an amazing Gilbert Price who left us much too soon. Sadly, it has been sung poorly with an upbeat tempo by quite a few artists who for me did not understand it. As Simone, Michelle sings it with the soaring and delicate tones that it was meant to possess. So much of those lyrics represent her feelings about black oppression and how changes need to come. She calls herself an activist and "Feeling Good" represents that optimisim. 

Being on the forefront for change she points out that "there's no colored section here." And jokingly with a kind of biting humor how white audiences have always enjoyed her music and pain. The emphasis is on pain because Michelle captures all those moments in Simone's life which audiences were probably so unaware of.

Besides the fact that Michelle sounds a great deal like Simone, you know how much the songs replicate the late singer's private life. "Love Me or Leave Me" is almost an ode to her violent husband whom she called "a dirty cop." He was more than that. He abused her mentally and physically. Shades of Ike Turner are apparent here. Forcing Nina to go on stage and taking her money. Focus back to Tina Turner's tragic and dangerous marriage. 

One thing I was not aware of was that Simone was trained as a concert pianist and her love for Bach knew no bounds. She could have been admitted to the Curtis Institute of Music because her white music teacher knew she had the capabilities but because of her color was rejected. 

As the musical moves on in the first act, she speaks about not including any protests songs because she was informed that could lead to riots. So, her famous "Mississippi Godamn" is left out. But she does get her message through that "My People are simply angry becasue they are fighting for their freedom." 

As the first act nears its end she becomes more vocal on her belief that nonviolence may not be the answer. It seems the death of Dr. King has not only made her political views more virulent but her mental condition is getting worse.

The second act takes place in 1976 at the Montreal Jazz Festival in Switzerland where she now lives because of the conditions for blacks in America. She enters wearing an afro and the look of that time period. Even the three musicians have that 70's look. But unlike the Nina of the first act she seems more jittery and derides her drummer for being late. When Michelle  breaks into "Little Girl Blue" she  sings it as beautifully as Simone sang it. I almost wished I could hear that back to back at that moment. And her rendition of Jacques Brel's gorgeous "Ne Me Quitte Pas" is sung interspersed with reminiscing about her destructive times with her ex-husband in what looks like hallucinatory images that she is experiencing. You can almost feel the agony she has been through and the serious effect it has taken on her. 

The book becomes a bit disjointed when you learn before she moved to Switzerland she lived in Liberia. It was not clear why she left there because it was apparent she felt more comfortable living there. Perhaps, Michelle or director Devanand Janki could have worked on that a bit more and there is a deja vu feeling from the first act. But still the book provides a lot of pertinent information. 

Still, when she she sings "I Put A Spell on You" the mesmerizing Michelle accomplishes that as Nina Simone.

Photos: Julietta Cervantes

Tickets are available at The New World Stages 340 West 50th Street.

Tuesday, March 8, 2022

 The Chinese Lady

       By Joseph Cervelli

Lloyd Suh's fascinating though thin new play "The Chinese Lady" at the Public Theater tells the story mostly through monologue about the first Chinese woman to come to America in 1834. We first see Afong Moy (well played by Shannon Tyo) in a Room (stylishly designed by Junghyun Georgia Lee) as it is called which is a raised setting on display in a museum. She was brought over here by The Carnes brothers who were import traders. In order for those to see her they have to pay the admission price (it goes up as the years change)  is a quarter for adults and ten cents for children to hear her speaking about her life and customs in China The brothers hire Atung (an excellent Daniel K. Isaac) as her interpreter. He deems himself irrevalent to the story and Afong agrees. 

Yet, as time goes on we find ourselves intrigued by this man who reveals near the end of the one act play his true feelings for her. There were a few moments throughout when I personally found him a bit more interesting than Afong which does not help the work directed by Ralph B. Pena. The issue is that as years go on you see changes in Afong in age justby the way he moves and acts, Afong (whose gorgeous traditional garb is designed by Linda Cho) never does. Except for minor changes, she remains the same in tone and behavior throughout which makes her character a bit tedious. 

She goes on in exposition form detailing facts through monologue in a nondramatic manner which makes the play feel more of a lecture than true dramaturgy. She speaks about the horrifying custom of what they do to a young girl's feet to make them smaller in appearance. Then speaks about the food and the importance of tea and the traditional way of serving it. I enjoyed her calling chopsticks "elegant" while "forks are violent and easy." 

After each of the various scenes Atung pulls the curtain and when it reopens Afong tells us the current year and how old she is. Her excitement which is understandable is traveling around the east coast. Certainly a nice change from staying in the same room for about 2 years. As the scenes change she speaks about her desire for American food and the enjoyment of eating corn and potatoes, staples which she does not get in the Chinese cuisine.


She is excited upon meeting President Andrew Jackson played with a blustery persona as played  by Atung. This was one of the most humorous moments in the play as Atung who doubles as Jackson and interpreter does not interpret the conversation between both Jackson and Afong the way it actually is said but the way he sees fit. 

As time goes on P.T. Barnum takes over and she goes to work for him in less than the best of surroundings. Barnum also hires Atung and while he equivocally states that he was never paid by Barnum,  I don't recall if Afong was though doubt it. 

More historical details follow as she speaks about Britain's desire to take over China and just touches upon the Opium Wars. What is intriguing and beautifully stated by Isaac as Atung is when he relates a dream he had about Afong and his feelings towards it. It was one of the best moments in the play. 

The playwright touches upon the Transcontinental Railroad, the treatment of the Chinese laborers, and the horrid Chinese Exclusion Act.

Since we don't really know what eventually happened to Afong in her latter years when she was let go by Barnum to be replaced by a younger Chinese woman,  the play takes an interesting and disturbing turn in which we are now in the present and Afong states she is 200 years old. With the current wave of heinous attacks on the Asian community this was the most powerful and affecting scene in the play. I could understand how deeply it affected the young Asian woman sitting beside me who was weeping. 

I just wished that there was more dramatic effect and changes in Afong's character and appearance than just a historical lesson which one could read about.

PHOTOS: Joan Marcus

Tickets are available at the Public Theater 425 Lafayette Street.