Regina Marie Williams in Nina Simone: Four Women. Photo by Tom Wallace.
The 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama was the site of one of the most horrific multiple murders during the Civil Rights era. It is also the focal point of Park Square Theatre’s production of Christina Ham’s play Nina Simone: Four Women. This world premiere at the Andy Boss stage transcends a simple biopic setup into a well-crafted dialogue between women of the Civil Rights Era, using the real-life jazz/pop singer Nina Simone and her songs to establish the background.
The play opens with Nina Simone (Regina Marie Williams), a renowned jazz singer, sneaking into the 16th Street Baptist Church the day after four young girls were murdered by a bomb in 1963. Simone is so affected by the bombing that she immediately started writing the song titled “Mississippi, Goddam.” She cannot complete the song and goes to church with a silent piano accompanist to see if she can find inspiration. She is soon joined by Sara (Aimee K. Bryant), aka Auntie, a working-class maid who was at the church when the bombing occurred and who now seeks sanctuary from the riots outside in the church. Sara is not an activist and blames the activists for triggering the violence by the white community towards the blacks. Saffronia (Thomasina Petrus) is the next to join the group: a middle-class school teacher of mixed blood who is referred to as “high yellow” for her lighter skin. Saffronia is an activist and regularly marches with Dr. King. Rounding out the group is Sweet Thing (Traci Allen Shannon), a young switchblade-wielding black prostitute. Her motivation to be there is to settle a score with Saffronia, who is engaged to the father of Sweet Thing’s unborn baby.
The characterization of these four women is based on Simone’s song “Four Women,” which lists stereotypes of African-American women. Although the show closes with each character singing a verse of the song, the play goes beyond the titular song and evolves into a fascinating conversation on topics related to the Civil Rights Movement, including the publicly suppressed role of women in its history, the role of violence, and who is to blame for it – those who commit it or those who provoke it.
This play is not a musical, but there are several songs performed within the show. The songs integrate well with the action and, with the rich voices of all four performers, provide many of the highlights in the play. Songs include the Broadway-style, show stopping, “Mississippi Godam,” with lyrics that include:
You don’t have to live next to me. Just give me my equality
Everybody knows about Mississippi
Everybody knows about Alabama
Everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam
Other significant Simone songs in the show include the title song, “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” and “Sinnerman.” When Simone recorded “Mississippi Goddam” and “Four Women,” it signaled her progression from nightclub singer to civil rights activists to sometimes extremist. The play is partly about Simone’s political transformation, but also much more: it is a very relevant and universal discussion on race, gender and oppression.
- Watch the real Nina Simone sing “Mississippi Goddam” in a 1965 live performance.
Director Faye M. Price makes the most of the show’s extremely talented cast. Excellent movement work four keeps the pacing and comedy moving throughout the production. Williams as Nina Simone is an enigmatic force throughout the play, but she steps back to allow Bryant, Petrus and Shannon to each take command of the stage at various times.
All of the action is set in the remains of the bombed church; Lance Brockman’s set design is distinctive and chilling. Hymnals and bibles are strewn across the floor amidst the remnants of knocked over church pews. A stained glass window remains intact with the exception of the face of Jesus, which was blown out by the bomb. This is both an appropriate setting for this fictionalized meeting and a sort of fifth character in the play.
Ham’s play is exceptional but does have some minor flaws. Probably the most significant flaw is the development of both Saffronia and Sweet Thing, where too much gets crowded into their stereotypes. Saffronia is, in addition to being a middle-class mixed blood activist, dealing with the pain of infertility. Sweet Thing’s prostitute portrayal also seemed uncharacteristic for the time. Her manner of dress and carrying of a switchblade seemed better suited to a time period 10 or 20 years in the future. These flaws do not, however, significantly distract from this well-structured and well-acted play.
Christina Ham’s play Four Little Girls is also set in the 16th Street Baptist Church. In a discussion after the play, Ham mentioned that her mother grew up in that church and her mother was a contemporary of the murder victims. The growth in Ham’s work from Four Little Girls to Nina is striking and she is fast becoming a significant American playwright.
Nina Simone: Four Women plays through March 28 at Park Square Theatre.