At the age of 13, Laiona Michelle sat in the dark during a production of Romeo & Juliet at Symphony Hall in Springfield, Massachusetts, and when Romeo entered, she gasped. “He was a Black man in a sea of white people, and I immediately sat up, and I was in awe from that moment on,” she remembers. “I was in awe.”
Thus began Michelle’s love affair with Shakespeare and her ambition in theatre. She racked up regional credits and a role on the first national tour of The Book of Mormon, but felt unfulfilled. “I reached the point in my career where I'd done so many different shows where I found myself being like one of maybe two Black people in a cast, especially when it came to doing Shakespeare,” she says. And then she met Christopher Smith.
Smith was the writer, composer, and lyricist of Amazing Grace, the show that marked Michelle’s Broadway debut. The twist? Smith was a retired cop. “If Christopher Smith could walk into my industry and get a musical from his Pennsylvania town to make it all the way to Broadway, why can’t I?” she asked herself.
So she wrote Little Girl Blue: The Nina Simone Musical. “Nina has always been my hero,” says Michelle. “I think the Nina I'm drawn to may be the darker parts of her that most people turn their heads away from, because she was brave enough to be dark, brave enough to be bold, brave enough to be angry.”
Simone was born in North Carolina with dreams of becoming a classical pianist. Instead, her prodigal piano skills and singular vocals shot her star high in jazz, R&B, and soul (though she integrated more classical themes into her music than audiences realize). Though she has 40 albums to her name, Simone didn’t reach a place in history to match her proliferation and gifts—because everything changed when she released “Mississippi Goddamn,” a song in protest of the murder of Medgar Evers.
Boycotted and physically destroyed by radio stations, the record shrunk her audience and knocked Simone off a pedestal, but it also solidified her as an activist. “She's an incredible icon and incredible human being that walked this earth and [who] deserves to now be placed where she rightfully belongs, and that is at the top,” says Michelle. “She deserves her crown.”
Though Little Girl Blue premiered in January 2019 at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, New Jersey (and was such a hit word spread to New York), Michelle buzzes with agitation and eagerness at its relevance today. “Nina Simone, didn't utter the words when she was alive: 'Black Lives Matter.' She never uttered those words, but she lived it,” Michelle says.
The musical is a solo show structured as two concerts (one for each act): the 1968 Westbury Music Fair and the 1976 Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. “The concert setting really is a sneaky device,” Michelle laughs. “Because of the emotional weight of the show, it gave a levity to it and it also gave voice to all the dark darkness in her life.”
And Michelle taps into that sorrow and levity, as she also stars as Simone and over 12 other characters from Simone’s point-of-view. She wants her audiences not only to relive Simone’s songs and musicality, but to understand her and her motives.
“One of the first questions I put down is … ‘the angry black woman’, how do you address that in this musical and make it reachable and tangible to an audience?” asks the writer.
“I initially felt that I want to be protective of her. [That] I got to quiet these voices around her,” she continues. “Now, I feel like there is a movement that's happening. There is a need that's happening. There is a raising of the voices. Why do I have to always justify my anger?”
Expect less defending and more determination, and that goes for any work Michelle does.
“I want to do important work. I want to tell our stories. I want to be in a room where the room is a reflection of me and a reflection of the world,” says Michelle. Which is also how she became the book writer of a new bio-musical about Nelson Mandela.
“I'm a soul-driven writer,” she says. Be it Simone or Mandela, Michelle communes with the spirit of her characters: absorbing the timbre of Simone’s voice and digging into research and interviewing Mandela’s family. Then, Michelle centrifuges their essences with her own emotions.
“When I get tired and when I do get—inside of these collaborations—overworked or feel like, ‘It's such a load, it's a burden,’ I tap into that and I embrace it because Nelson Mandela, Nina Simone, they walked this earth with so much weight on their shoulders, and they did their best work when they would listen to maybe the heaviest of loads,” she says. “I tap into that exhaustion, and it brings out the material.”
That exhaustion isn’t just the hard work of writing a musical. It’s the hard work Black artists in the theatre community have finally felt safe to divulge. The emotional labor, the responsibility of representing a people, the personal fears of being Black in a world of white. “As a Black woman, I know that I've struggled with being in rooms that I don't belong in and making myself small and sometimes often laughing just to soften my Blackness,” Michelle shares.
Change is coming with stories like Little Girl Blue and Mandela, and, quite frankly, with Michelle’s position as a Black writer to tell Black stories. But she knows what she wants to see more of: “When there is a show out there, there's no [reason] that there can't be Black designers on board. We have them. HBCUs across the country are training and they're producing solid designers, costume designers, set designers, lighting designers, and all you have to do is go out there and look. NYU alone is pushing them out. Juilliard! They're right in the city,” she says. “They're there. These people need to be getting the call, particularly for shows for color, and shows that aren't for color. We are skilled. We are just as talented, and we are worthy.”
Michelle’s own evolution into a multi-hyphenate is proof. “I was a trained, very worthy actress and singer and the material that I was getting [over the course of my career] just wasn't measuring up,” she says. “And I did something about it.”