Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Director Timothy Douglas and choreographer Lady Dane Figueroa Edidi are working with four notable singers and dancers, given constant support by music director and offstage pianist Darius Smith. The songs and dances convey all the soul and emotion an audience could hope for, but the dialogue scenes get bogged down in words.
Playwright Christina Ham tells the story of Simone (Harriett D. Foy) through the lens of the 1963 bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, which killed four African-American girls. Simone, still in her sequined black dress from a singing engagement, finds herself in the rubble of the church (in Timothy Mackabee's hallucinatory set, some of the pews hang suspended above heaps of brick dust) with three other women: Sarah (Theresa Cunningham), a domestic and member of the church; Sephronia (Toni L. Martin), a civil rights activist whose comparatively light skin often earns her scorn; and Sweet Thing (Felicia Curry), a tough prostitute. The three archetypes become elements of Simone's song "Four Women," with Simone taking on the role of the fourth woman.
The first part of the 100-minute performance (no intermission) is largely Simone telling her story to Sarah, with moments of song: her childhood as a musical prodigy, performing in the church where her mother preached; her experiences as an African-American aspiring classical pianist facing a white establishment; her early career singing American standards in nightclubs; and, ultimately, the anger that turned her into a protest singer. She is inspired by racial violence to write incendiary songs like "Mississippi Goddam" and "Old Jim Crow" as a way to "say the unspeakable" and "create music that wakes us up."
The second half is a political debate among the women, touching on the conflict between Martin Luther King Jr.'s insistence on peaceful activism and Malcolm X's more violent struggle, which Simone favored. The other main issue, as Simone sees it, is that the men who ran the Civil Rights Movement used the work of women like Sephronia but kept them in the background. (One note: the play uses the term "women's lib," which didn't enter the language until later in the 1960s and '70s.) The idea that the personal is political comes through in a battle between idealistic Sephronia and pragmatic Sweet Thing, as Sarah finds her relief in hard work and prayer. Through everything, Simone is right: the true catharsis comes through the music.