Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Nina Simone: Four Women
The bombing by white supremacists at the Birmingham church on September 15, 1963, was the third to happen in the city in the 11 days following a federal court order to desegregate the city's schools. Simone's song "Four Women" paints vivid pictures of four different women in the African American community and Ham casts those women as the four characters in her play. As they each move into and out of the burned out and crumbling church, drawn there as a place of refuge from the chaos on the streets outside, and while Simone feverishly works to get the thoughts in her head written down as the lyrics for her song, the women speak about their pasts and the impact the bombing has had on them, while interacting with Simone and each other. We learn about their struggles and their experiences in a world full of hate, all set to the songs that Simone wrote on that day.
Ham's play does a great job in using Simone's songs as a thread to weave the stories of Simone and these archetypal Black women together and uses Simone's urgent need to compose the lyrics for "Mississippi Goddamn," which would become Simone's anthem, as the thrust of the play. In addition to that song and "Four Women," Simone wrote a total of four songs that day, including "Ain't Got No, I Got Life," and "To Be Young, Gifted and Black," and her bold, succinct, and confrontational lyrics gave a voice to the anguish in the world concerning the violence and oppression against Black communities, mainly in the still-segregated South.
"Four Women" describes four different women of color–Aunt Sarah, Sephronia, Sweet Thing, and Peaches, with skin black, yellow, tan, and brown, respectively. Ham's play shows us that, while they may be lumped into the category of "Black women," the lyrics in the song, and how Ham has written the characters, allow us to see that, while they share a commonality, they are all different and unique. Ham also uses their differences to touch upon the issue of colorism, where some Blacks discriminate against other Blacks simply based on their skin tone. In doing so, Ham has giving voice to these women while also opening our eyes to how they were viewed and how they also suffered from various forms of self-hatred due to the different colors of their skin.
While the 100-minute, one-act play does a great job in depicting the somewhat self-centered and obsessive Simone, and presents rich details of the various levels of impact the fight for civil rights has on these women, Ham sometimes struggles to tie all of the themes and ideas she puts into the piece together. Also, since the majority of the play consists of conversations with Simone and one of the other women, there is a bit of a repetitive nature. As each woman finds her way to the church, they tell Simone about themselves as Simone talks about her past and how she's inspired by the events of the bombing to write a song about it, and then that scenario is repeated again and again. It isn't until the last 15 minutes when all four women are together that everything begins to jell, with confrontations and conversations that are rich, provoking and inspiring.
Unfortunately, the characters that come into the church later in the play aren't as fleshed out as fully as I would like. There is even mention of a pregnancy of one of the characters that comes out of left field and simply seems to be a way to provide tension between two of the women. Fortunately, there is still a lot of good material here that allows us to see how all four of these women wrestle with how to find their place in the world with the racial unrest that is happening around them.
Candace Thomas is appropriately determined and somewhat cocky as the fierce and focused Nina, who finds the women who come into the church a constant distraction who get in the way of putting her lyrics down on paper. Thomas has a beautiful singing voice and she brings a refined sense of heightened passion to her songs. From her wonderful portrayal we get a beautiful understanding of how the events at that time inspired Simone to rise up and speak out. Deidra Grace plays Sarah, the most fully fleshed out character, and she expertly creates this identifiable woman who has spent years working in the homes of white people, in a performance that is realistic and believable. Her singing voice soars on her few solos. Sephronia is a child of a mixed-race couple and Katya Collazo does a very good job portraying the conflict, struggle and confusion in being a light-skinned Black woman who can often "pass" as white. As the streetwalker Sweet Thing, Kia Dawn Fulton gets the shortest stage time but manages to do a fairly good job of creating this archetypical character. Danté Harrell rounds out the cast as the onstage pianist who provides a rich and varied musical accompaniment throughout.
Director Tiffany Nichole Greene does a great job deriving rich performances from her cast while making exceptional use of the fantastic set design by Arnel Sancianco, which appears as if it's a moment in time right after the bomb went off, with pieces of the church walls and windows and even the pews suspended in the air overhead. The evocative lighting by Philip S. Rosenberg and the rich sound design by Daniel Perelstein Jaquette provide ever-shifting stage images and pops of noise that depict the constant threat of violence that is happening just outside the church. Ramona Ward's character-specific costumes help to define these four very different women.
Nina Simone: Four Women takes these women, and the audience, on a journey of self-discovery. It will open your eyes to many things, including how Black women were viewed and treated during the civil rights movement, how these women view and interact with each other, and how the turbulent events of the past, unfortunately, seem doomed to repeat themselves in the world we live in today, where racism is still incredibly prevalent.
Nina Simone: Four Women runs through April 10, 2022, at Arizona Theatre Company, Herberger Theater Center, 222 E. Monroe Street, Phoenix AZ. For tickets and information, please visit www.arizonatheatre.org or call 602-2566995.
Written by Christina Ham
Cast: (in alphabetical order)
*Member, Actors' Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States