Stills from Moth, pictured Kendall Teague and Nicole Vaughan-Diaz

Please Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood

When I listen to Nina Simone, my senses come alive. She strikes a chord in me, though it isn’t merely pleasure I feel when listening to her; I’m drawn to her work like a moth.

She kicked my ass when I was a younger artist. I tried choreographing a dance to her music, but I must’ve sensed I couldn’t hold my own against her because I put the piece away as soon as it premiered. It was a good lesson. Some music doesn’t need anybody to accompany it.

Artistically, Nina Simone pulls me into a dense thicket, a shadow-place of not-knowing, made frightening and unique in the splendor of her voice. She can be funny, full of rage, unbelievably alert-to-self, risky, and dramatic too. She can move between female, male, and every possibility, mixing it up so that what’s left is abiding humanity.

I come back to Simone’s work again and again because she takes so much risk as an artist, it challenges me to be braver. She relates the world as she sees it; and her sight is rich, harsh, and honest.

When I hear Simone sing Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood, I feel sympathy toward men frustrated by their feelings toward women. Sometimes I think she’s singing the song AS a man; at least, the power of her voice puts me smack inside “the other.”

The song was written by a man, the songwriter Horace Ott (along with Bennie Benjamin and Sol Marcus), who crafted it as an apology for bad behavior toward his girlfriend. Its maleness is written into its language:

“Baby, you understand me now…
if sometimes you see that I’m mad.
Don’t you know no one alive can always be an angel?
When everything goes wrong, you see some bad.”

Simone sings the song with sly darkness; she could be an abuser. It strikes me when I hear her; we can never understand someone else’s relationship; that elusive “right” and ”wrong” seem to disappear in Simone’s plea to be forgiven and not misunderstood.

While creating the choreography for Moth, I asked Nicole Vaughan-Diaz (a remarkable dance artist gifted with a truly beautiful singing voice) if she’d try the song out. She offered me a version that felt feminine, wounded, whispery. I asked Nicole to try again with menace just under the surface, thinking of Simone’s version, but ultimately, it just didn’t feel right.

After experimenting with interpretation, Nicole and I landed on the version in Moth. Nicole’s take on this iconic song sounds so world-weary to me, full of longing and resignation. This is a woman who knows she won’t be - and maybe doesn’t deserve to be - forgiven.

You can listen to a snippet of Nicole's gorgeous rendition in Moth's trailer:


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Stills from Moth, pictured Kendall Teague and Nicole Vaughan-Diaz