A musical play about the deep-strung voice of Nina Simone is enough to get you in the door, but Christina Ham’s Nina Simone: Four Women at Arena Stage goes beyond song and storytelling, cracking apart the veneer of “black women” and “the civil rights movement” to show as many shades of black as there are notes on the scale of Simone’s luxurious throat.
Four very different women gather at the site of the devastating September 15, 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, which senselessly killed four little girls. From this unimaginable tragedy, iconic chanteuse Simone found her pen and her voice, specifically with the ballad “Four Women” — along with other activist anthems “Mississippi Goddam,” “Old Jim Crow” and “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” – defining the sound of the Civil Rights Movement. Yet, as the play tells us, there was not a single movement, but many.
From the moment you enter the Kreeger Theater, you are forcibly embraced by set designer Timothy Mackabee’s blasted wreckage of 16th Street Baptist Church, magnificently suspended to encircle the cast and audience in its pall. On this platform simmers Harriet D. Foy as boiling, blistering, razor sharp Nina Simone. She prowls, and snaps, and croons, and hurts. The other three racial archetypes serve to reflect and refract Simone’s agonizing labor toward rebirth. Theresa Cunningham’s steadfast “black” Aunt Sarah is a head-down, hard-work, church-goer of an older generation. Her Forrest Gump like guilelessness delivers some of the play’s best punchlines. Toni L. Martin blooms with poignancy and conflict as “yellow” Sephronia, a young activist schoolteacher and devotee of Martin Luther King Jr. straddling both different cultures and eras. Felicia Curry is her foil as angry, bitter, streetwise survivor and hooker-with-a-heart-of-acid, “tan” Sweet Thing.
Tenderly directed by Timothy Douglas, the script jumbles a range of Simone’s musical identities: originals, gospel, and popular songs. Whether solo or in quartet, the numbers are intense and powerful, and these women have pipes. Special kudos go to the piano accompaniment by music director Darius Smith. Costumes by Kara Harmon, and lighting by Michael Gilliam, further set the pitch-perfect stage for these women to sing, dance, and debate about class, sex, religion, politics, and skin color.
Playwright Ham observes, “I think any black woman has felt like all four of these women at different parts of her life.” Whether you feel like them, admire them, or are educated by them, you will certainly want to meet them.
Nina Simone: Four Women is playing at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater through December 24, 2017 (1101 Sixth St. SW, Washington DC 20024). Running time: one hour and forty-five minutes, with no intermission. For information or tickets call 202-488-3300 or click here.
Photo Credit: C. Stanley Photography