Academic by Day, Actor by Night: Afia Ofori-Mensa in 'Simply Simone'

September 14, 2017

Hillary Hempstead

Four women singing on stage at Karamu House in a production of Simply Simone
Sheffia Randall Dooley*, Mariama Whyte, Afia Ofori-Mensa (seated), and CorLesia Smith in Karamu’s regional premiere of 'Simply Simone: The Music of Nina Simone' by Robert Neblett and David Grapes (*member of Actors’ Equity.)
Photo credit: Michelle Berki

Three months ago, Afia Ofori-Mensa deactivated her personal Facebook account.

The assistant dean, assistant professor, and director of the Office of Undergraduate Research was hoping to recover time she spent on the site and devote it to more meaningful pursuits, including writing a book manuscript. Instead, the creative energy she gathered during her breakup with Facebook led her in an unexpected direction.

“I started thinking about a series of conversations with a number of former Oberlin students of mine,” says Ofori-Mensa. “They remembered me saying, years ago, how I had a secret dream of acting in film that I kept tucked away behind all of my more practical-sounding dreams. When I shooed the idea away—with gratitude for her even remembering that we had talked about it—[the student] said, ‘But we want you to have the things that make you happy.’ It gave me the permission to start dreaming again.”

So she talked with a colleague in the theater department. “I sat down to lunch with Caroline Jackson Smith, and she told me that they were still holding auditions for a musical that she was directing at Karamu House out in Cleveland. She said I could come out to audition or just to observe how an audition process goes. I thought—what better way to learn than to just do the thing, and then ask for feedback afterward?”

That’s how the academic came to play the role of a young Nina Simone in the production of Simply Simone: The Music of Nina Simone at Karamu House, the oldest African American theater in the United States and founded by 1914 Oberlin graduates Russell Jelliffe and Rowena Woodham Jelliffe.  

Directed by Professor of Theater and Africana Studies Caroline Jackson Smith and choreographed by Adenike Sharpley, former artist in residence of Africana studies, Simply Simone is a musical biography of singer, songwriter, pianist, arranger, and civil rights activist, Nina Simone.

Simply Simone opens on Thursday, September 14, 2017 and runs through October 8, 2017 at Karamu House in Cleveland.

Read more about Simply Simone and Ofori-Mensa in this Q&A

At Oberlin, you are an assistant dean, the director of an office, and an assistant professor. What’s been your experience with acting?
I grew up acting in community theater. When I was a kid, my sister and I used to watch movies over and over again until we memorized the lines, and then we’d act out the parts together. In middle school, she saw an acting class in the community education booklet that used to come to our house twice a year. She wanted to enroll in it, but she didn’t want to do it alone. So she signed me up, too, because she’s my older sister, and she could get away with things like that. The teacher liked what we were doing so much that she invited us to audition for a community theatre production of Alice in Wonderland that she was directing in a town nearby, and that ended up being the first of a number of her plays that I was in.

Where did that community theater experience lead?
I acted with that company through middle school and high school, and then I did college theatre, too. Late in graduate school, I was recruited to join the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching Theatre Program, the CRLT Players, at the University of Michigan. As part of that troupe, I got to do improvisational, interactive theatre—where we would perform sketches for audiences of graduate students or professors or administrators, remain in character while they asked us questions about what they had just seen, and then come up with answers on the spot. It was magical what I got to see doing that work, how people could hear and learn from each other better when they could project their anxieties onto fictional characters who were also real people in the room. As a performer and an educator, it was perfect for me; it is still, to this day, one of the best jobs I have ever had. But I stopped when I graduated. I haven’t done any acting in seven years, I just started taking voice lessons in March, and I’ve never been in a musical before. So this has been a lot of occupying a growth mindset, and challenging myself to do things that don’t feel easy and familiar to me.

Were you familiar with Simply Simone prior to auditioning?
I wasn’t. The first time I heard of it was when Caroline Jackson Smith told me that she would be directing it. I was surprised later when a Facebook friend of mine told me that she had seen the production in Houston. There have been a number of productions around the country, but ours is the Midwestern premiere.

Do you have a favorite song or particular scene?
There’s a scene in which young Nina is denied entry into the Curtis Institute of Music, and the older, wiser versions of Nina help to carry her through this devastating loss with the song "Young, Gifted, and Black." I love the arrangement that we—the actors, director, and musical director—generated collaboratively in rehearsal. The first time we staged it, there was a kind of electric energy surrounding that moment that I had not experienced before. It’s now my favorite scene.

What’s one thing we should know about Nina Simone?
Nina Simone was a phenomenally talented classical pianist. She was a prodigy. She was not a jazz singer, and it was important to her to assert that. I think so many of us now know her voice as one of the most familiar aspects of her, but she only began singing because she needed a paying gig, and no one would pay her just to play piano. Someone once told me that nothing will go quite right in your life until you do the things you’re really meant to do. But the reality is that, because of the nature of the world we live in, not everyone has access to their greatest self. I wonder if that was one reason Nina Simone was so troubled throughout her adult life and struggled with abuse and addiction. Racism and sexism and classism barred her from following the only path that she had laid growing up.

Why do you think someone should see Simply Simone: The Music of Nina Simone?
It's timely. There are some lines in the show that refer to things that took place in the 1960s, were written for a play that originally premiered in 2008, but sound like they could be referring directly to things that are happening in the world right now. Also, Ms. Caroline is the director, and Ms. Ade is the choreographer, and Karamu House itself was founded by Obies. So it’s a chance to get out to Cleveland but still see a thoroughly Oberlinian production. Plus I’m in it ... singing. So you’d get to say you saw that once.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?
The show features an entire cast of black women. It's directed by a black woman. It's choreographed by a black woman. All of that together just doesn’t happen much in theatre. So I’m really proud and privileged to be a part of it.

You may also like…

3 Things with Matthew Rarey

January 31, 2024

Matthew Rarey, the chair of Oberlin’s art history department and an associate professor of African and Black Atlantic art history, won the College Art Association’s prestigious Charles Rufus Morey Book Award in 2024.
Matthew Rarey.

College of Arts and Sciences Welcomes New Faculty for 2023-24

September 18, 2023

Students choose Oberlin—and thrive at Oberlin—because of the nurturing mentorship of the outstanding faculty who guide their learning. We are honored to welcome the newest additions to our faculty across the College of Arts and Sciences for 2023-24.
Class being taught outside at Oberlin's Memorial Arch.