Travis Love, of Ventnor, wants more people to know about the music and life of the late singer-songwriter, pianist and civil rights activist Nina Simone.
Love and his fellow founders of the Atlantic City-based grassroots dance troupe Culture Collective – Stephanie Johnson and Isaiah Young, both of Atlantic City, and Christina Noble, of Egg Harbor Township – organized a dance and audio-visual tribute to Simone that will be performed Saturday at Dante Hall Theater in Atlantic City. Also participating in the “Nina In Motion,” program are Kinetic Poetic Dance of Galloway Township and Work Of Art Dance Studio in Piscataway Township, Middlesex County.
Love was a fan of Simone before he got involved in the tribute. Now, he’s even more impressed with her.
“I thought I knew a great deal … which is why I wanted to embark on this project,” said Love, 32. “I fell in love with her all over again. The project allowed me to gain new respect for her and the struggles she went through to be who she was. She wasn’t afraid to be sexual. She wasn’t afraid to be political.”
Simone was born in 1933 in North Carolina. Atlantic City played an important role in Simone making a name for herself.
When Simone looked to supplement her income in 1954, she auditioned to sing at the Midtown Bar & Grill on Pacific Avenue in Atlantic City. She created her own versions of the popular songs of the day by Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers and George Gershwin – filtering them through her own synthesis of blues, jazz and classical music. Even though Simone is classified as a jazz artist, she had seven top-50 R&B hits between 1959 and 1969 and one top-20 pop single, her version of Gershwin’s “I Loves You, Porgy” in 1959.
Simone wrote and sang about her African-American origins and racial inequality in the early-to-mid-1960s, which were not mainstream song topics at the time. Simone also called for violent revolution. She left this country in 1970 and died in France at age 70 in 2003.
People don’t know enough about Simone, Love said.
“Our society is afraid to talk about controversial people in our history,” said Love, who added Simone’s music is transformative. “We haven’t learned to understand the nuance of such a person. Nina Simone was a voice of a movement before there was a black history movement.”
Among the Simone songs featured in the 90-minute show are “I Loves You, Porgy,” “Work Song,” “Four Women,” “See-Line Woman,” “Sinnerman,” “Feeling Good,” “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” and her version of “Strange Fruit,” made famous by jazz singer Billie Holiday. Audio interviews, video footage and photographs of Simone will be played and shown between the dance numbers, Love said.
Love said people who come to see this show will learn a little bit more about Simone, but he also hopes they take away a little bit of her courage for their own lives.
Lisa Zeuner, the director of Kinetic Poetic Dance, is one of the people Love approached over the summer to participate in the program. Zeuner, a collector of early jazz and 1960s soul on vinyl, loves Simone’s music. This will be first time her group performs at Dante Hall.
“Most people don’t know who (Simone) is. I talked about the show all the time, and everyone was like, ‘Who is that?’” Zeuner said.
The 214-seat Dante Hall was the best place in Atlantic City to stage the dance project, Love said. Love has spread the word about Saturday’s performance by reaching out to the Police Athletic League, the Atlantic City Theatre Guild and the religious community among others. Even though Simone is not well known, Love hopes people come to see the dance project in a place that played such an instrumental role in her career.
“These cultural traditions need the support of the community to survive,” Love said. “This is something Atlantic City hasn’t seen in quite some time.”
Simone may soon be more well known to the general public. Actress Zoe Saldana is starring as Simone in a movie, titled “Nina,” which is currently in post production and could reach movie theaters later this year. Saldana is one of the stars of “Avatar” and the rebooted “Star Trek” film series.