Nina Simone’s political shift from comfortable folk and jazz crooner to radical artist has already taken place at the start of the play “Nina Simone: Four Women,” now at the Arena Stage in Washington D.C.
Lisa Chiu is not the Culture Curmudgeon, she’s just filling in. She’s a digital producer at CGTN America. Her analysis represents her views alone.
In this production by Playwright Christina Ham and Director Timothy Douglas, Simone has all the drive of an musician-activist, but just lacks the song to symbolize her anguish and rage at the church bombing in Birmingham that killed four young girls in 1963.
The single arresting set by Timothy Mackabee is the bombed ruins of the 16th Street Baptist Church with a stained-glass window of Jesus — face covered in a black cloth. Pews are made to look as though they’re flying in mid-explosion, and the ground is rubble.
Simone, masterfully played by Harriett D. Foy, is working on a composition that will eventually become “Mississippi Goddamn” when she encounters three other black women, each with a story to share.
Sarah, played by Theresa Cunningham, is older, conservative, and from a working class background. She’s wary of the civil rights movement and tensions increase when a light-skinned activist Sephronia, played by Toni L. Martin, arrives. Finally, Sweet Thing — played by Felicia Curry — joins the group. She’s a dark-skinned woman from a working-class background who’s accustomed to using her body to get her needs met.
The struggles these women face are nuanced and painful. Like Miss Simone herself, Ham’s play is not always an ease to watch — and that’s why it’s so brilliant.
Each woman is a flawed soul, living in an even more flawed society.
One where people turn water hoses at others and beat them with sticks because they dare protest for basic human rights, and an activist is beaten so badly that she can’t ever bear children.
A world where a dark-skinned black woman would rather clean the homes of 100 white women than one light-skinned “yellow girl”.
Female civil rights marchers are not allowed to stand with Martin Luther King Jr. and other male marchers.
Dark-skinned black women are called Jemima by other black women.
A biracial woman must accept the fact that her white father raped her mother and must constantly prove her “blackness”.
A black woman is sexually assaulted and no one responds to her cries for help because she’s a prostitute.
An upper-class black woman is accused of selling out and making money off of tragedy.
Through the conversations of these women, intermingled with some of Simone’s own songs, they explore the untidy issues of sexism, classism, shadeism, self-hatred, and racial infighting as well as the outside fight against racial prejudice.
Foy’s Simone is simultaneously an angry ringleader and the comic relief.
In one breath she says she wants to write a song that “cuts folks like a razor so she can watch them bleed on the street” and in other she’s offering relationship advice: “I married and divorced my first husband within a year. Remember, you can do that.”
And then there’s the most honest moment of the play, when Foy removes her wig and speaks with such personal truth that the entire audience is left breathless.
The production ends with the women singing the play’s namesake, Simone’s “Four Women” which beautifully summarizes the plight of these characters in short thoughtful lines.
Ham has created a beautiful narrative legacy to Simone’s lyrical prompts.
For those wondering if American theater can survive past the baby boom, this production proves it. It was the most diverse and youthful audience I’ve seen. Please, more plays like this.
Nina Simone: Four Women is playing at the Arena Stage until December 24.