1. What’s in a name? Nina Simone was born in 1933 as the slightly-less-catchy Eunice Waymon. She decided to change it after taking a job as a pianist at a bar in Atlantic City and being told she was going to have to sing too. Terrified her Methodist preacher mother would find out she was singing the “devil’s music”, she laid low under this new name which would soon become iconic. “Nina” was a term of endearment used by an ex-boyfriend whilst “Simone” came from the French actress Simone Signoret.
2. “This Bach, I liked him!” Young Nina began playing the piano as a 3 year old in church, crossing the railroad tracks to the white part of town to study classical piano for free lessons which she adored. Her aim was to be the first black classical pianist in America. It was on this journey that she encountered racism as a young girl, paving the way for her later career in activism: first when her parents were moved to the back of the church during her first piano recital to make way for a white family (Nina refused to play unless they were brought back to the front); then again when she was rejected from the Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music based on her race (she carried on trying, and did get into the Julliard School of Music).
3. Come and knock on my door… Malcolm X and Nina Simone lived next door to one another in Mount Vernon, New York during the late 1960s. The pair were united in their approach to the Civil Rights Movement, believing that a militant stance would be more effective at taking on the establishment than the peaceful protest offered up by Martin Luther King Jr. This was in great contrast to Nina’s early life where she had been taught that racism was the “great unspoken” in her childhood home.
4. “A love affair with fire” – Lisa Simone on her mother. Nina’s second husband Andrew Stroud gave up his day job to become her manager and producer full-time not long after they met and fell in love. They were introduced in March 1961 while she was playing at a midtown supper club and he was a formidable New York City police officer. Their marriage turned tempestuous, with Stroud becoming abusive before she eventually left him.
5. The messages in Nina’s songs are as relevant today as ever. Nina’s passionate, revolutionary protest anthems such as Mississippi Goddam – a direct response to the murder of Medgar Evers and the Alabama church bombings which killed four children in 1963 – were a call to action and a truly inspiring point of change in the black power movement. In recent years, in the US, the UK and the world over, there have been political stirrings reminiscent of those seen in the 60s and 70s. Nina and her songs are perhaps even more necessary now than ever before.
Nina: A Story about me and Nina Simone runs until 29 July in the Maria studio at the Young Vic. Tickets are sold out but we’ll be operating a returns queue at the box office in advance of each performance.