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Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Nina Simone: Four Women
Park Square Theatre
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's recent reviews of Beauty and the Beast, The How and the Why, If/Then, and Happy Days


Traci Allen Shannon and Regina Marie Williams
Photo by Petronella J Ytsma
Nina Simone was an extraordinary singer, pianist, and composer who emerged in the late 1950s as a supper club performer singing the Great American Song Book with a jazz twist, and evolved through the 1960s and 1970s into a mesmerizing singer of soul, blues, and pop music, as well as a strident proponent of civil rights. The mystical incantations she often wove into the performance of a song earned her the sobriquet "The High Priestess of Soul."

A recent surge of interest in Simone (who died in 2003) has brought her work and unique persona to new audiences. The 2015 documentary film What Happened, Miss Simone? was nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the Academy Awards, and a Simone biopic is due out in early April. In addition, she appeared as a character in two shows that had brief Broadway runs in 2013: A Night with Janis Joplin and Soul Doctor>, the latter about Jewish folk-singing Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. That Simone influenced two such disparate musical voices speaks to her depth and range.

Add to that array of Simone-alia Nina Simone: Four Women, Christina Ham's engrossing new play receiving its world premiere at Park Square Theatre's Andy Boss Thrust Stage. Ham takes an historical event, the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, on September 15, 1963, in which four young girls were killed, placing Simone in the wreckage of the church sanctuary on the following day. In this fictional conceit, Simone has journeyed to that spot, along with her piano accompanist, seeking inspiration in composing songs that express the fire raging in her heart. With the civil rights struggle heating up and growing more violent—three months after the murder of Medgar Evers and less than a month after the March on Washington where Martin Luther King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech—the play shows Simone at a turning point between chanteuse and provocateur.

The title refers to a Simone song in which she created vivid portraits of four archetypes of black women, shaded by their struggles and their strengths. In the course of the play, three other women find their way into the church and, with Simone as the fourth, they form the song's Aunt Sarah, Sweet Thing, Saffronia and Peaches (Simone's alter ego). The four women argue (sometimes ferociously), pitting different views on the civil rights movement, their different levels of status within the black community, and their status as females in a movement led by black men against one another. At times, though, they also find common ground and reach out soothingly to each other.

Throughout the play, Simone reveals the journey that brought her to this point, both personally and professionally, including her frustrated desire to study classical music (she was a piano prodigy at the age of three) and disparaging comments that accompanied her career—that she was too dark skinned, that her nose was too broad, unlike the lighter skinned, fine featured African Americans generally able to break the racial barriers and perform for sophisticated white audiences.

Ham has done a good job of shedding light on the interplay of Simone's life, her artistry, and the civil rights movement. The placement of Simone and the three other women in the 16th Street Baptist Church is contrived. Each woman arrives, seemingly, without much trouble, but they are unable to leave because of crime scene barriers around the property. Wouldn't those barriers have kept them out? Yet, if we accept that flight of fantasy, the interactions of the four provide a deeply felt understanding of the lived experience of black women at that moment, in that place, and of Simone's ability to channel that experience into her music.

Regina Marie Williams, one of the most consistently excellent actors in the Twin Cities, adds a star to her crown as Nina Simone. In the past year alone, Williams has transformed herself into a morally compromised Haitian nurse in Death Tax, a good-hearted, rock-solid housekeeper in To Kill a Mockingbird, and a musical comedy diva as flamboyant Delores Van Cartier in Sister Act. Several years ago, Williams presented a concert of songs associated with Simone and performed in Simone's style; it was her drive that spurred the development of that program into this full blown, two-act play. Williams owns the role, speaking and singing in Simone's unique manner, moving with leonine grace, and demonstrating Simone's crust of arrogance scored by shards of vulnerability true to Simone's persona. I had the privilege of seeing Nina Simone perform several times, and can't imagine an actor bringing her more faithfully to life.

The other three women who make up the title quartet are also played wonderfully. Aimee K. Bryant is Sarah, dismissively called Auntie. She is a housemaid whose own life attests to the need for change, but who lives in fear of the unrest that change brings. Bryant finds the core of dignity within Sarah's meek persona. Thomasina Petrus is Saffronia, a civil rights worker behind the scenes in support of the men who are the movement's leaders. She urges the others to join the fight, but in roles suited for women. Saffronia is light skinned but makes it clear that the status given to "high yellow negroes" comes with a steep price. Petrus is a convincing firebrand who has made peace with the compromises required of her. Last to join the group is Sweet Thing, a hooker with a heart of shiny coal, played convincingly by Traci Allen Shannon. I last saw Shannon as Dorothy in the Children's Theater's Wizard of Oz and, believe me, the girl has left Kansas. Shannon exudes the sex Sweet Thing is selling, but along with that comes a bitter mean streak, revealed as we learn that she and Saffronia are not strangers to one another. Added to the abundant acting talent, all three of these actresses have glorious singing voices

Several songs from Simone's catalogue are interpolated into the play, a few presented as the fruits of the inspiration she had sought in the bombed-out church, but found in her fellow black women: "Mississippi Goddamn," "To Be Young, Gifted and Black" and "Four Women." Williams delivers flawless performances of the first two. "Four Women" has each of the four sing the part that describes their life, adding immensely to the song's power and heartbreak. In an amazing rendition of "Sinnerman" sung by all four, Simone uses her body, the floor, and anything she can find to add percussive thrust, creating an unstoppable force.

Simone was a gifted pianist, making the presence onstage of a piano accompanist seem peculiar, especially as he is given absolutely no words to speak. Not one. That just seems false. Either Simone would have handled the piano duties herself, or if she did travel with an accompanist it would be one in whom she had enough trust to exchange at least a few words. That said, Sanford Moore's piano does add beautifully to the presentation of the songs woven into the play.

Under Faye M. Price's direction, the significance of every moment and every word in the play are felt. From the beginning, it casts a spell from which the audience cannot turn away. Lance Brockman has created a vivid bomb scene, with charred hymnals strewn about, broken stained glass looming over the space, and everything helter-skelter. Jacob M. Davis has crafted the sounds of rioting heard from outside the church, and haunting sounds within, that place the setting within a cauldron of upheaval. Trevor D. Bowen's costumes perfectly reflect the qualities of each character.

Nina Simone: Four Women is a powerful and beautiful piece of work. There is room for some refinement of the premise and the script as the play travels onward, but travel onward it must. The importance of Nina Simone in the culture of change that marked our nation during the 1960s and 1970s, and the opportunity for mesmerizing performances—especially if a production can find actors as gifted as the quartet on the Boss Thrust stage—should give this work a healthy future.

Nina Simone: Four Women continues at Park Square Theatre's Boss Stage through March 26, 2016. 20 West Seventh Place, Saint Paul, MN, 55102. Tickets: $40.00 - $60.00. Thursday, March 24 matinee, all tickets $25.00. For tickets call 651-291-7005 or go to parksquaretheatre.org.

Writer: Christina Ham; Director: Faye Price; Music Director: Sanford Moore; Choreographer: Patricia Brown; Scenic Design: Lance Brockman; Costume Design: Trevor D. Bowen; Wig Design: Mike Miller; Lighting Design: Michael Wangen; Sound Design: Jacob M. Davis; Properties Design: Sadie Ward; Dramaturg: Gina Musto; Stage Manager: Elizabeth R. MacNally

Cast: Aimee K. Bryant (Sarah aka Auntie), Thomasina Petrus (Saffronia), Traci Allen Shannon (Sweet Thing), Regina Marie Williams (Nina Simone aka Peaches).


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