A play with music, Nina Simone: Four Women meditates on songstress Nina Simone’s transition from a singer to an activist, eventually writing songs that would underscore the Civil Rights Movement.
Directed by Timothy Douglas, Arena Stage’s production features DC favorites Harriet D. Foy, Felicia Curry and Theresa Cunningham, and new to Arena audiences, Toni L. Martin and Darius Smith.
At a time when so many are feeling the need to step up and do something in our hurting world but don’t know how to start, this production is an incredible reminder that you just need to take the first step. Or write the first note.
Sarah Scafidi caught up with playwright Christina Ham to learn more:
Tell me about Nina Simone: Four Women.
Christina Ham: The play looks at Nina Simone’s shift from artist to activist after the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham and the murder of Medgar Evers. Those two incidents inspired her to write “Mississippi Goddamn” – her signature song in terms of her starting to create Civil Rights music that was more of a reflection of what was going on and the struggle of her people. The play uses her song “Four Women” as a framework to not just talk about those events, but also to provide a context for the timeframe when she was creating and to deal with issues of colorism among Black women that isn’t typically dealt with.
You mentioned this play is set around the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing – you also have another play that is also set around that event.
I do. It is a theatre for young audience’s play that was commissioned a few years ago by the artistic director of a children’s theatre in Saint Paul called Stepping Stone Theatre where I’m based. The artistic director had always wanted to do a play about the young girls who were killed in the bombing – thinking about who they could have been. When I was doing my own research on Nina Simone and “Four Women” – I forget which magazine this was in – but the writer made a correlation between the song “Four Women” and how there was some inspiration from the four little girls for the women in the song.
What was your inspiration for the play?
I was commissioned by Park Square Theatre in Saint Paul, Minnesota to write a play on Nina Simone. One of the actresses there had performed a show about Nina in a cabaret-style setting and knew that it wasn’t adequate in terms of being a [standalone] play. She and I have worked together on two other plays of mine that were historically based, and she admired that about my work. So, she said, “maybe we can all collaborate?” So, we spoke to the artistic director at Park Square about it, and he wanted to commission me to write it. I said, “sure, as long as we’re clear it’s a play and not a musical. And it’s not a jukebox musical. It’s something more substantive than that.” So, that’s really how I came up with it. For me, it was going beyond even what a lot of books and the documentary on her have talked about to get to where I landed with the play.
Beyond the books and the documentary – what do you mean in terms of research or in scope?
I think the play hyper-focuses on a particular period in her life as opposed to trying to encompass her entire biography and all of the other things that contributed to who she was as an artist. In terms of a theatrical production, it becomes a little challenging to try to get all of that on stage and ends up, I think, a lot of times, diluting the message of who the artist really was.
What has been the life of the play?
When it was done for the first time in 2016, it sold out before it opened. It had a very successful run. So, Park Square brought it back again in February of this year, and it did very well once again. So, people who were affiliated with Molly Smith, the Artistic Director of Arena, and knew the community in DC, knew this was something that they might respond fondly to and mentioned it to her. I had a relationship with Associate Artistic Director, Seema Sueko, when she was based in Los Angeles at Pasadena Playhouse. So, I sent the play to her before she left there, and she said she would be bringing it to Arena. I think during their season planning, it ended up working out that they were able to fit it into this season into their holiday slot.
It’s amazing how plays journey from theatre to theatre.
It is. And you really don’t have any control over it. You just have to let things take their course and see how it happens.
Have you been in rehearsals at Arena?
Yes, I was in rehearsal last week. It was their first week of rehearsal. It was really incredible to see the actresses taking on the lives of the characters, watching them be extremely moved but also opening up a lot of scabs in their own lives that the play deals with. It’s created a camaraderie between the women as well. They have banded together in a sisterhood, which always seems to happen with that play. So that’s been really terrific.
Nina Simone: Four Women
at Arena Stage
November 10 – December 24, 2017
Details and tickets
That’s lovely! Are you making any revisions or rewrites?
Oh, absolutely! I did a massive rewrite after the last production in Saint Paul. I feel like I really drilled down into the topics in terms of dealing with the issues of color and how those divide us: how we are fighting it on the outside, out in the world, but also fighting it on the inside, in our own community. The damage that creates in terms of women and their self esteem.
I mean, for women, no matter our color, our self esteem is always kind of shaky. You know? But I think when you layer on color, and then you layer on socio-economics and all this other stuff, it goes into a deeper place. So, I tried to explore that more. I also tried to explore Nina’s own self-esteem issues, because while she was pro-Black, pro the people, pro the Movement, basically writing the soundtrack for the Movement, she also had her own issues with self-esteem.
She started in a field that was very White. She went to a female boarding school in Asheville where all of her teachers were White. Her piano teacher was White. All the men she studied music with were White. So, she was very much in this White world. And I think, for all intents and purposes, even her husband would say, she hated the fact that she wasn’t White. And that’s really devastating. She would stare at herself in the mirror for hours. Her journal entries even spent time talking about this: about how she looks like everything that White people despise. And there’s nothing she could do about that. And she had a point. I can’t say she was making it up. So, I really wanted to play with that core.
That is incredibly devastating. Especially for a woman who is now so well-known and celebrated.
Yeah. The end of the play digs more into that.
Are these updates and changes coming from conversations you’ve had or are they a response to recent events?
The changes are based mainly on conversations with my dramaturg. Also during both productions, I saw about 28 performances, and I took notes at all of those performances and sat with it and knew that there were a lot of things I wanted to do differently or things I wanted to explore. I knew that the Sweet Thing character hadn’t really developed as fully as the other characters, so I worked on her in this last draft. There were cuts that I needed to make to get to the point quicker.
Tell me more about the music in the show. If not a musical or jukebox musical, how do the songs function in the piece?
I would say that the songs function to enhance the storytelling and the text. Musicals obviously do that too, but a lot of times, the songs are saying what the characters aren’t saying. In my play, the songs enhance the ideas Nina talks about with a little finer distinction.
Harriet D. Foy is the actress playing Nina. Did you know her before this production or was she someone that Arena brought in?
I didn’t know her personally, but she has worked on several previous productions at Arena. My director, Timothy Douglas, knew her as well from both DC and New York. And other people I’ve known who’ve worked in DC know her and have nothing but wonderful things to say about her.
Will she be playing the piano?
No, she is not playing the piano. The way my script is constructed, if you can’t play the piano that is fine, and if you can, that’s terrific, too. We haven’t found that actress yet. The play pretty much takes place in a moment. It’s kind of hard to dramatize that, but it gives us some leeway. It’s not a linear, realistic play; it’s more about being inside the moment. It’s almost like the music emanates from what’s happening on the stage. That’s Timothy’s job to really dramatize that essence.
This may be pretty obvious, but why write this play now? Why tell this story now?
It’s interesting. I feel like, in a lot of ways, the pendulum has swung backwards a bit. So, this means that a lot of what our leaders were talking about or dealing with back then in the 60s, we are still dealing with today. I think a lot of the things that we’re talking about in the Black community, especially some of the sexism that occurred in the movement and how Black women were left out of it, are things that people didn’t really talk about, and most people don’t know or understand that – that type of censorship.
Nina was creating work in that period. And her two most popular songs were songs that were originally censored. So, her voice was censored. So I think this story is important to provide that kind of context.
Also, if we branch out and look at things like how our own entertainment industry is examining itself with the #metoo controversy and how men and women have participated in the abuse of women. And even more micro-focused: looking at how, in the Black community, Black women also gang up on each other. I think this play can provide some healing. In the Black community, we don’t talk about this at all. It’s what we think, but we’ll never say it. So, I think in the wake of women in general being put in the closet with our issues of abuse, this play is timely.
So far, what has been the most exciting part of the process?
I don’t consider myself one of those playwrights who wants to be a control-freaky about everything. So, for me, it’s seeing in rehearsals how other people take the play and allow it to blossom in a way that fits them. That’s the most exciting part of the process for me, and just seeing these women being amazing on stage. Because we don’t see enough of that.
Is there anything else you’d like us to know?
No. I would just say that my mom’s family went to the 16th Street Baptist Church, so that’s a personal connection for me. It was a way for me to understand the kind of impact that that bombing had on Nina Simone and how it flipped a switch for her in terms of her saying, “okay, I need to stick my toe in the water now.”
It’s an incredible story to be telling right now when so many of us want be doing something but we aren’t sure what to do.
My partner talks about that too. He’s on Facebook. I haven’t been for several months. But he said that he notices a lot of our colleagues in the theatre world are talking about having a difficult time working or writing about what’s going on right now. They are really struggling with it for whatever reason. And to me, it sounds like they are trying too hard.
Like, Nina just went and wrote a song about it. I really don’t think it’s difficult. I think you just speak from your heart and not try to be clever, and all of the other stuff will come.