Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Nina Simone: Four Women
The play is set the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, only days after the tragic bombing that killed four young African-American girls. "Our babies," Simone (Williams) calls them. "They are killing our babies!" In the (fictional) setting for the drama, Simone has travelled to the church to bear witness, and also in the hope that standing amid those pews will allow her finally to finish the last verse of her great Civil Rights anthem, "Mississippi Goddam."
As she works on her song, she is interrupted by the consecutive arrivals of Sarah (Aimee K. Bryant), Sephronia (Jamila Anderson), and a pregnant sex workeror prostitute, as they were then calledwho calls herself Sweet Thing (Traci Allen Shannon). Saying that she wants to be left alone to compose, Simone is nonetheless drawn in by the women's stories and by their unique if overlapping responses to the bombing and to the Civil Rights Movement in general.
Brilliantly weaving Simone's songs and spirituals into the narrative, Ham allows us to understand how the variety, complexity and sheer unpredictability of the women's experiences shaped their very different perspectives. As the women sing and speak their lives, they find solidarity, not despite their differences, but, in a sense, because of them.
Take Simone's own history. Simone did not originally intend to become a singer. As Eunice Kathleen Waymon, she grew up as a child prodigy in Tryon, North Carolina. By age three, she could play piano by ear. Trained in classical music, she received a grant to study at Julliard, before she applied to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Despite her obvious talent, she was turned away. This rejection, which seemed grounded on racism, put an end to her dreams of becoming Carnegie Hall's first African-American concert pianist. To make ends meet, she took a job playing piano in an Atlantic City bar. Finding that the patrons paid slim attention to the entertainment, the bar's owner urged her to sing the popular tunes she played. Within a few years, she had gained a significant following as a recording artist, with a repertoire that ranged from Bob Dylan to Duke Ellington to Scandinavian folk songs.
Williams, a powerhouse of a singer in her own right, wisely resists trying to reproduce Simone's unique low rumble of a voice. At the same time, she vividly captures Simone's rich emotional range, moving from raw, booming outrage to subtle irony to tender passion. Listening to Williams' fiery rendition of "Mississippi Goddam"a song as disturbing as it is rousingone begins to understand why Simone's songs were so essential to a movement whose mantra of "quiet dignity" demanded an almost superhuman capacity for self-restraint. Simone knew that she could use her art to give expression to the righteous anger that monumental acts of injustice provoked. There are times when remaining silent would mean succumbing to despair.
Emerge magazine called Simone's voice "our voice, embodying the militancy of our justifiably angry impatience with racist white America." Others called her the "voice of the Civil Rights movement" or "the Queen of Soul." Simone herself rejected all such labels. In fact, as Ham's play clearly conveys, the singer defiantly resisted having her music, or her identity, defined by others. She bristled when she was compared to Billie Holiday or when her music was described as "jazz." In her words: "People couldn't get past the fact that we were both black. Calling me a jazz singer was a way of ignoring my musical background because I didn't fit into white ideas of what a black performer should be."
The play illustrates the relentless pressures and constraints African-American women have always faced, including being constantly in danger of having their identities reduced to a collection of stereotypes. Like much of Simone's oeuvre, the title song was a testament to the multi-dimensionalitythe sheer complexity of experiencesthat shaped the lives of the women she met and befriended throughout her life. "Four Women"the song and the playare both acts of defiance against the obscurity to which the lives of the Sarahs and Serophinas and Sweet Things of the world are often relegated. The beauty of the play is to be found in the freeing of those women's voices. The play, like the song, allows the different women to tell us who they were, rather than what others tried to make of them. It is a wonderful play; try to catch it if you can.
Nina Simone: Four Women by Christina Ham. Performed through February 26, 2017, at the Park Square Theatre, Historic Hamm Building, 20 West 7th Place, St. Paul, MN. For tickets and information, call 651-291-7005 or visit parksquaretheatre.org.
Directed by Faye M. Price