Nina Simone: Four Women at Arena Stage slams you from the moment you see the set depicting a blown-up church with pews flying in mid-air, windows shattered and still smoldering, dust settling, debris scattered on all sides.
Set and sound designers, Timothy Mackabee and Matthew M. Nielson, create a totally unsettled state, that brings everyone into the moment and on edge wondering if the last stick of dynamite has actually exploded or if more horror is yet to come. As the play opens, the sound and fury quietly settle. We are in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, on September 15, 1963, after the bombing that maimed congregants and killed four young girls: Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair.
Three women sit in what remains of the church’s pews. Harriett D. Foy as Nina Simone, paces with nearly uncontrollable rage, sitting periodically on a pew to work through lyrics in her head, then scribbling out notes, finding solace in a battle cry that will eventually become the often censored “Mississippi Goddam.” She banters with the women as she wrestles with her own demons of what she could do, what she hasn’t, who she is, is not.
Matronly Sarah, dressed in her maid’s uniform, has no idea who she is, just an unknown high falutin, over dressed rich lady in the wrong place, wrong time. Light-skinned Sephronia recognizes her immediately and showers her with accolades. It’s here where Simone’s stories finally come to light, her role in the Civil Rights movement, including the diminished role of black women in the struggle, her beginnings as a classically trained prodigy, and how life events thrust her from comfy show-tunes to become a piercingly poignant vocalist of her time.
Playwright Christina Ham brilliantly interweaves Simone’s music and that of others into the story. The Four Women script is anchored in one of Simone’s signature songs, “Four Women” describing women with distinct skin color and hair texture. The heartbreak of the four little girls is a constant presence in the firebombed church as the four women work through their various identities, including Simone’s own insecurities about her color complexion and features. We hear the women’s’ voices as they emerge as distinct characters, bringing out each other’s full-bodied lives with feelings and choices. And oh, how they sing, move, dance and shout, all gorgeously accompanied by music director, Darius Smith.
No one can replicate Simone’s voice, but Foy comes awesomely close as evident from the opening song “I Loves You Porgy.” Her tones penetrate the air with a deep resonance and she even raises the decibels with a field holler filled with pain, hope and resilience all at the same time. As Simone, Foy moves with a fighting stance, circling the stage like it’s a boxing ring where’s she ready to pounce, float like a butterfly and sting like an angry bee. It’s a remarkable performance.
Theresa Cunningham as Sarah has a deep timbre in her voice that penetrates to the soul. She has performed locally for years and with this role, is finally achieving the acclaim she deserves, playing Sarah as a sturdy, rock solid force of unwavering truth.
Toni L. Martin plays Sephronia as a precious mix of battle-scarred activist wrapped around a core of vulnerability. She’s paid the price in wounds and pain including having children beaten out of her by angry white mobs. “Their billy clubs saw to that,” she responded when asked about her chances for motherhood. They go straight to the abdomen, slamming the protestors down to the ground, she explained. Sephronia’s story provides a glimmer of the sacrifices made by throngs of nameless people who put their bodies on the line for social justice that’s nearly taken for granted now. Why would she subject herself to stay on the front line of the battle time and time again? To prove she’s black enough? To serve as penance for the brutality to her black mother that resulted in her own birth? All kinds of psycho-social reflections flicker through Ham’s timely script.
Nina Simone: Four Women
closes December 24, 2017
Details and tickets
Felicia Curry’s Sweet Thing sits along the side in brooding silence for much of the first act, but when she adds her say, what a powerhouse. She’s a menacing social outcast, who berates and threatens Sephronia –they obviously share some man history—and dismisses the societal implications of the bloody little girl’s shoe she brandishes in her hand. Sweet Thing will settle anything with a fight or for a price and has a callous disregard for anything but her own meager survival. Her character brings a cutting edge, literally, to the considerations of class struggles.
Director Timothy Douglas has truly called on the ancestors big time to bring the inner cry of these characters to the stage. Choreographer Lady Dane Figueroa Edidi unleashes a fury of movement, including a step cadence, some jelly roll strut, then brings it all home to a sanctified church praise. The women cover it all.
Scenes start and stop in this piece with little regard for traditional transitions which at times don’t make logical sense and that’s fine— somehow, it all works. It’s not as much choppy as naturally dream-like with an authenticity that goes straight to the gut.
Simone wished “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” would replace the dreadfully plodding Negro National Anthem, “Life Every Voice and Sing”. Remember, this was years before James Brown blasted out “Say it Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud.” The black cultural revolution had not yet hit its stride, we were still evolving from “colored,” and calling someone Black meant a fight would break out. Those of us who grew up with Simone’s music and that voice also saw her unapologetic and regal manner, moving with defiance through anything that tried to put her down. She paved the way for so many with her magnificence as a strong and proud black woman.
It doesn’t take much to recognize how hatred and violence, stoked to the surface then, and continues to rattle our society. Nina Simone: Four Women at Arena is a stroke of artistry that shines a spotlight on one of our most gifted artists, her reaction to the killings of innocents, and shows how her bodacious talent stood to resist the destruction. In this gorgeous re-imagining, Simone’s musings of self-identity and power to the people live on and are so needed, right here, right now.
Nina Simone: Four Women . Director: Timothy Douglas . Cast: Harriet D. Foy, Felicia Curry, Theresa Cunningham, Toni L. Martin and Darius Smith. Music Director: Darius Smith . Choreographer: Lady Dane Figueroa Edidi . Scenic Design: Timothy Mackabee . Costume Design: Kara Harmon . Wig Design: Anne Nesmith . Lighting Design: Michael Gilliam . Sound Design: Matthew M. Nielson . Stage Manager: Christi B. Spann . Produced by Arena Stage . Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson.