‘Her Own Deity’: Nina Simone’s Trailblazing Life and Legacy Return in ‘Eunice in Paris’
On a warm Memorial Day weekend in 2000, Atlantans caught their final glimpse of Nina Simone when she strode regally onstage at the 23rd Atlanta Jazz Festival waving a feather-accented spirit stick. During “See-Line Woman,” the pianist and singer triumphantly danced, strutted and marched around the stage as a packed crowd of adoring fans at Chastain amphitheater (including Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell seated at a table down front) kept time clapping.
Just three years later on April 21, 2003, the inimitable classically trained performer born Eunice Waymon was dead at age 70.
Playing to rapt, enthusiastic audiences in the final years of her life, Simone savored a professional renaissance. In 1987, Chanel No. 5 used her 1958 tune “My Baby Just Cares For Me” in a popular TV commercial, placing her back on the pop culture zeitgeist. That same year, the iconic American jazz label Verve Records released the acclaimed direct to digital “Let It Be Me: Live at Vine St.” And on her final recording, 1991’s “A Single Woman,” Simone teamed with Natalie Cole’s Grammy-winning “Unforgettable” producer Andre Fischer where she explored everything from “Papa, Can You Hear Me” a hit from the Barbra Streisand film “Yentl,” to a hip-hop adjacent cover of Prince’s “Sign O’ The Times.”
Perhaps most importantly, after years of mental health challenges, Simone finally received a bipolar diagnosis and was prescribed medication that treated her sometimes violent mood swings. Two days before her death, she received an honorary degree from the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music, the same Philadelphia institution that had denied entrance to a young Black woman classical piano prodigy named Eunice a half century earlier.
In Atlanta playwright Amina McIntyre’s powerful new one-woman show “Eunice in Paris: A Nina Story” written for Atlanta actress Parris Sarter, McIntyre explores the darkness and the light of Simone’s transformational time in France’s most romantic city in the early 1980s. Living in a small apartment, Simone had a residency playing at Les Trois Maillets, an even smaller nightclub reminiscent of the old Midtown Bar where the pianist began her career in Atlantic City.
For a woman who had played Carnegie Hall, performed fundraisers for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., palled around with “A Raisin in the Sun” playwright Lorraine Hansberry and author James Baldwin and literally recorded the soundtrack for the civil rights movement with tunes including “Four Women,” “Young, Gifted and Black,” “Mississippi Goddam” and “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” the experience was humbling. In “I Put a Spell on You,” Simone’s often-searing autobiography, the performer recalled the choking cigarette smoke in that small room, writing, “I heard Jimmy Baldwin’s voice in my head, ‘This is the world you have made for yourself, Nina, now you have to live in it.’”
Like a lot of artistic endeavors of the past two years, the idea for “Eunice in Paris” germinated during COVID lockdown when Sarter’s friend, Atlanta playwright and actress Daryl Fazio emailed her to suggest the idea. Sarter then floated the idea to McIntyre, who eagerly accepted the creative challenge and immediately plunged herself into Simone research. With development assistance from Atlanta’s Hush Harbor Lab and a first draft in hand, Sarter publicly debuted the material on Zoom in the summer of 2021.
The newly expanded 60-minute “Eunice in Paris,” will debut this weekend, Sept. 3, performed solo by Parris Sarter as part of the Atlanta Black Theatre Festival Saturday at 4 pm at the Southwest Arts Center. McIntyre’s script imagines Simone’s transformative final show at Les Trois Maillets as she comes to terms with past trauma and tragedies while trying to navigate a path forward in a music industry that has largely discarded her.
During a recent Sunday rehearsal at Park Avenue Baptist Church in southeast Atlanta, actress Parris Sarter, playwright Amina S. McIntyre, director Thandiwe Thomas De Shazor, stage manager Mia Kristin Smith and movement director Kalah Byrd took a break to discuss the one-woman show with Eldredge ATL. The following is an edited version of our conversation.
Q: How did the creative process begin for “Eunice in Paris”?
Parris Sarter: During lockdown, [Atlanta actor and playwright] Daryl Fazio was listening to “I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to be Free” and emailed me and said “You are the only person I can think of who could bring all of the passion of playing Nina. You should do a one-woman show.” I immediately thought Amina McIntyre would be the ideal person to collaborate on with this. It’s been in development for two years.
Amina S. McIntyre: I’m really excited about this period in Nina’s life, early 1980s in Paris. Her story has been told a lot but I was particularly intrigued with this two-year period where Nina was playing piano in this dive bar getting paid $100 a night. James Baldwin and Nina have this conversation where he essentially says to her, “What are you doing? This can’t be your life.” This was also before her mental health diagnosis. She ends up having this huge resurgence after this time in Paris. I have a huge love of Black Paris and have done a lot of research on it. It was this intersection of all the things I love.
Q: What attracted you to the project, Thandiwe?
Thandiwe Thomas De Shazor: There is a surrealist look and feel to this piece because a lot of this is in Nina’s head. It’s a speculative piece, especially because Nina is going in and out of being different characters and she’s jumping time. There’s a big reveal and we come to understand that she’s having this emotional catharsis, a catharsis that will ultimately birth her new career. There is this spiritual fight she’s having. But she has to go through this in order to become the Nina we saw in her later years. That’s the power of this piece.
Q: What attracted you to this production, Mia?
Mia Kristin Smith: All of these people! [everyone laughs] My schedule was so busy, I kept saying, “I can’t, I can’t!” but then Amina called and I said, “I’ll find the time.” Here was a story being done about a Black woman being written by a Black woman about this iconic person but set in a time period we don’t all know about. After I read it, I had to be a part of it.
Q: Kalah, can you tell us a bit about what a movement director does in a show like this?
Kalah Byrd: Tom Jones, one of favorite directors is from Atlanta. As a teenager I saw him direct [the theatrical adaptation of Toni Morrison’s] “The Bluest Eye.” I saw these characters moving and dancing across the stage. It was so beautiful. When I think of what a movement director does, I think of that. My job is to think about how to tell this story through movement, words and the actor’s body. Nina Simone is everything. I see myself in this play.
Q: What’s in the script that’s resonating with you?
Kalah Byrd: Just yesterday, we were working on this section where there’s this looming character and you don’t quite know who or what it is. But it’s something Nina has to face. You can run from all of these things in your life but at some point, you’re going to need to circle back and face things. It spoke to me about some lessons that have been sitting and waiting for me to face.
Thandiwe Thomas De Shazor: It’s something we all deal with. It’s that shadow or that demon that we’ve got to deal with. For Nina, it’s what she’s got to face in order to become the performer and artist she is ultimately remembered as.
Parris Sarter: We’ve been talking a lot about her later interviews and this play explains how she got there. This play represents her breakthrough to the performer we all got to enjoy later when she gave interviews saying, “I would love to be married but they would have to understand that I am a star!” as she taps her cigarette. You see peace in her in those moments.
Amina S. McIntyre: This also speaks to her classical training where she was taught, “You are a diva.” Her teacher would tell her, “Do not play anything until you are ready. You take your time and embody the music.” I also wanted to bring focus to how she had to wrestle with the people who were trying to make her into this persona. These people who were trying to exploit her. And how she ultimately has to say, “No, this is the person I need to be. This is who I need to be in order to live the rest of my life.”
Parris Sarter: This is also about her no longer being a young woman but a middle-aged woman. An age when you start to say, “Nope, I am not doing that. I have had enough of that.” That’s what’s so interesting about this moment in her life and what makes it so attractive to play. She says what she says and she means every word. There are no apologies. She is a force, an unapologetic force. She was a Black classical pianist who was forced to take this route because of racism.
Q: One piece of the show that I particularly loved when you did the Zoom performance in 2021 was the scene where Nina is embodying James Baldwin and you just nailed his voice and those cigarette movements. Amina, as the play developed, how many more characters did you throw into the script for Parris to tackle?
Amina S. McIntyre: Parris just said, “Write all of them!” [everyone laughs]. In the beginning, I think her dad was in there and maybe another person. Parris said, “More of that. I really like all of these voices.” We kept pushing more people into the mix.
Parris Sarter: Jimmy Baldwin is probably my favorite because he’s so animated. It’s fun on the lips. He speaks in this poetry-jazz kind of way.
Thandiwe Thomas De Shazor: What I love about the Jimmy Baldwin and Nina scene is it’s a beautiful conversation between two brilliant people who don’t have a lot of peers they can be vulnerable with, who share common ground. They can have that heart to heart where he can say to her, “Nina, what are you doing?” It’s Jimmy Baldwin saying to Nina, “Here girl, take this life raft.” And we get to see this high priestess, being vulnerable. It focuses on her humanity and her struggle to remain who she is. The audience can say, “I’ve been there too.”
Q: Parris, have you done a one-woman piece like this before?
Parris Sarter: No, this is my first time. What’s great is this is a new work. If I mess up, nobody knows. [everyone laughs]. I’m a character actor and I love this — playing a woman who lived her life full-tilt. She was fighting her demons. She was a woman who put her whole soul into a movement who was then tossed aside. A woman who didn’t know how to turn off the Nina Simone part of her so she lost her way as Eunice.
Q: How did you find Nina’s speaking and singing voice?
Parris Sarter: I watched the [2015 “What Happened, Miss Simone?”] documentary and videos of her performing. Her mannerisms are brilliant. She walks onstage and just stands there. She commands the room. We all want to be like that. She became her own deity. She created space for herself.
Q: You could argue that Nina Simone created the soundtrack for Black Lives Matter. Why is this story especially important to tell right now in a time in America where it feels like we’re moving backwards?
Amina S. McIntyre: The story is important for me because activists have to take care of themselves. I always try to write plays that offer healing and some care. Very often, activists go and do all of this work and they don’t care for themselves. This is Nina trying to care for herself. This is Nina trying to reclaim herself.
Thandiwe Thomas De Shazor: That’s it, right there.
Mia Kristin Smith: As an audience, we need this pause. Like Nina, we need to recognize that we all have problems. But we cannot allow the things going on around us to diminish who we are. This story tells us there is hope for us, that we can keep going.
Parris Sarter: We are still here.
“Eunice in Paris: A Nina Story” by Amina S. McIntyre, directed by Thandiwe Thomas De Shazor and starring Parris Sarter as Nina Simone will debut as part of the Atlanta Black Theatre Festival, Sat. Sept. 3 at 4 pm at the Southwest Arts Center, For tickets and details, go to the atlantaabtf.org.
Richard L. Eldredge is the founder and editor in chief of Eldredge ATL. As a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Atlanta magazine, he has covered Atlanta since 1990.