Photo: Wesley Hitt
In a play about a musician with a gigantic voice and an even larger personality, two minutes of silence say a lot about “The Champion.” Perhaps it was only 90 seconds of silence. Or 60 seconds. Whatever the length, it felt like an eternity, one of those powerful and moving and uncomfortable moments. The last of those words made the news recently, as a school board in Mississippi decided to yank Harper Lee’s classic “To Kill a Mockingbird” from the library because it made people “uncomfortable.”
We are indeed meant to feel uncomfortable during “The Champion,” which is in the middle of its world premiere. This debut run continues through Nov. 5 courtesy of TheatreSquared, which presented the show as more of a work in progress last year during the Arkansas New Play Festival. The completed version on stage now, written by Brooklyn-based playwright Amy Evans, recalls a pivotal moment for famed musician Nina Simone and her band.
What: TheatreSquared’s “The Champion”
When: Wed-Sun through Nov. 5
Where: Nadine Baum Studios, Fayetteville
Cost: $17-$47, a limited number of $10 are available for those under 30 years old
Tickets: Call 479-443-5600 or visit theatre2.org
To say too much more about the specific event that causes the moment of silence likely gives away too much of the plot. But for background purposes, know this: The play takes place in a single room. Simone and her band, who are all waiting for a ride home on a train called “The Champion,” pass the time at a diner on a snowy night in 1962 North Carolina. Evans based the story on interviews she conducted with Christopher White, Al Schackman and Bobby Hamilton, who served as Simone’s bass player, guitarist and drummer, respectively.
There are storms raging inside the diner, too. The train ride home will be the one that takes them back to New York, as the tour has just concluded with the show earlier in the evening. But no one is particularly happy. Chris, for instance, has just accepted a job performing with Dizzy Gillespie and will be leaving Simone’s band. Bobby is discombobulated because his bandmates left him at the train station. Nina is bold and determined one moment and harsh and confrontational only seconds later. Not even Theresa, the star-struck teenager working the diner that night, has everything she wants. She hopes to leave town and get a degree so she can teach. She wants to return home to a neighboring county where she hopes to fight oppression through education. There has been racial tension in her hometown, Theresa tells the band.
But oppression soon comes to visit the diner. The band gets paid a visit by two local police officers. The officers did not come to the diner looking for a hot meal. They came looking to stir the pot.
What we learn from the series of events depicted during the 90-minute run time of “The Champion” says a lot about the volatility of music and the era during which Simone found fame. We watch the group in 1962, still early in the Civil Rights movement, and before Simone would write her career altering song “Mississippi Goddam” in response to the killing of Medgar Evers. This play is an almost music-free addition to the renewed national interest in Simone, which includes a recent documentary and biopic.
In Fayetteville, Simone is portrayed by Joy Jones, who also occupied the role in Fayetteville during last year’s production. And what a range of emotions she shows. Later in her life, Simone would be diagnosed with bipolar disorder. But Evans’ script argues those tempestuous tendencies were in place early in her career, too. One moment she’s handing off a ring to Theresa as a sign of their friendship. Moments later, she’s screaming at the girl for not being bold enough. It’s not long after that exchange that Simone is herself whimpering and speechless.
Because it is set in one room, and with only rare chances of escape for the characters, we’re left with a very dialogue-centric play. That only works if the dialogue is strong. I don’t remember many throwaway lines. (There are several instances of adult words in the script, by the way. I still think it’s appropriate for high school-aged students, if you’re inclined to bring one along. But proceed with that caution.) It also means the show is reliant on the actors and actresses to carry the show. That’s no problem for the cast assembled by TheatreSquared.
It’s always interesting to ponder the life cycle of a new play like “The Champion.” Those watching this production are among the first to see it outside of workshops. As Simone’s star reignites, we learn her message – and the one offered by Evans’ script – still resonates more than 55 years later. At the end of the show, we watch the characters exit to catch their train, which will take them home and later to destinations unknown. At the end of this run of shows, we’ll see just how far “The Champion” will travel, too.