Regional Reviews: Connecticut & the Berkshires
Nina Simone: Four Women
Nina Simone (a skilled and versatile Felicia Curry) is writing and prepping herself for a performance at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, on September 15, 1963, when the building is bombed and four girls lose their lives. Playwright Christina Ham has fashioned a script which simultaneously educates and electrifies as Simone interacts with three imagined and quite different Black women.
Pianist Danté Harrell and drummer Diego Mongue warm up the proceedings with a welcoming jazz preshow which includes tunes such as "Blue Skies" and "After You've Gone" as audience members file into the cozy Unicorn confines. (The musicians are active participants during the production and Harrell is also music director). The immediate contrast is astounding as the sound of shattering glass (sound design by Kaique DeSouza) unsettles observers shortly after the presentation begins. Randall Parsons' set is simple but appropriate as it includes stained glass hanging at an odd angle, a grand piano, and stray pieces of wood. Sarafina Bush has adeptly wardrobed the women with outfits matching their personalities.
Simone is having her conversations through song lyrics and dialogue. Director/choreographer Gerry McIntyre effectively creates a flow of motion when applicable. Simone writes and sings, for example, "Images," "Four Women," "Young, Gifted and Black," and the pulsating "Mississippi Goddam," a work inspired by the church tragedy of that day. Curry's voice is deeply expressive. The actress does not physically resemble Simone yet her performance demonstrates the evolution of a woman whose politics are moving far left of center. She feels for people of the South, gripped by segregation, and she bears the strain of Medgar Evers' death. Simone gravitates toward Malcolm X's philosophy.
First to join Simone on stage is the church-going Aunt Sarah, played by Darlesia Cearcy, whose vocal range is expansive and true. She sings "God Be With You" and "His Eye is On the Sparrow" with Nina. We next meet Sephronia (Sasha Hutchings), a woman whose politics are more moderate than Simone's. Sweet Thing (Najah Hetsberger) is a woman who plies her bodily trade by walking the streets. All of the women combine with erupting voices on "Old Jim Crow," "Sinnerman," "Young, Gifted and Black," "Shout, Oh Mary!" and, at the play's conclusion, "Four Women."
The women's political perspectives differ, but they are united in opposition to appalling violence. Their thematic unification is accentuated by the recent deaths of very young people within the church. Those on stage are people of strength who face Jim Crow laws in the southern United States, which cemented a racially segregate situation by preventing Black people from gaining economic and social equality. Circumstances of the day dictated separate but not equal existences.
Nina Simone: Four Women dazzles through its impressive outcry. Further, it accomplishes its mission through song. It is a group effort: Curry is pivotal as the title performer, but this is a composite show that vibrates through all four characters' presence. Ham has written a jam-packed and detailed script, and McIntyre's direction is essential. Music, thanks to Nina Simone and everyone associated with this rendering, fuels urgency at a time of heightened anxiety.
Nina Simone: Four Women runs through September 5, 2021, at Berkshire Theatre Group, Unicorn Theatre, 6 East St., Stockbridge MA. For information and tickets, call 413-997-4444 or visit www.BerkshireTheatreGroup.org.