The National Black Theatre Festival kicks off this week in Winston-Salem, and this year it features a locally written play about musician Nina Simone.

"Little Girl Blue" is a concert-drama that boasts an 18-song playlist, featuring songs like "I Love You Porgy," "Four Women," and "Be My Husband."

Writer and director Nathan Ross Freeman crafted an unconventional structure to showcase the story - it's told as a dialogue between a teenage and adult Nina Simone, and their piano. 

"It's a universal theme," Freeman says. "The play celebrates that conversation we all have. Because our younger self is not a chronological past vs. present. Our younger self is just one of our other invisible friends that refused to be put down."

Little Girl Blue stars 19-year-old Greensboro actor Bijan Shaw as young Eunice Waymon - Simone's original name - and Markeisha Ensley as the elder Simone.

Freeman and his team had to do a three-month search for the actors, even hiring a casting director in New York to do a national search. He says, "they had to be expert pianists in all genres of music, and they had to be able to sing in low and high registers."

Freeman was first exposed to the music of Nina Simone in the 1960s. He was an activist from Philadelphia and had journeyed to Harlem to protest the construction of the Harlem State Office Building when someone played him a record.

"The first note of Nina Simone I ever heard was the beginning of 'Four Women,'" he says. "Everybody has a possession of Nina in their era. And I was fortunate enough to have that when it was the protest Nina, the Civil Rights Nina. When she was writing from the heart, the one time that she was fully in tune with herself and loved herself."

The National Black Theatre Festival is celebrating its 15th year and runs through August 5th at venues across Winston-Salem. 

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