“Nina Simone: Four Women” imagines an artist’s path to activism

Porscha Shaw, Shontina Vernon, Shaunyce Omar, and Britney Nicole Simpson in Seattle Rep’s “Nina Simone: Four Women.” (Photo by Nate Watters)

Four young Black girls were killed after a bomb set by the Ku Klux Klan went off at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama in September of 1963.

This followed only a few months after NAACP leader Medgar Evers was assassinated in Jackson, Mississippi, by a White supremacist.

The play “Nina Simone: Four Women,” presented by the Seattle Repertory Theatre, explores how these events affected Simone’s trajectory from a popular jazz singer to an activist artist.

But in addition to the relevant exploration of the lives of Black women, how tragically relevant is this play to our real-time news of mosque, synagogue and church bombings in America in just the past few months?

Playwright Christina Ham wrote “Nina Simone: Four Women” as a fictional imagining of the events that influenced Simone’s music. The play was first commissioned and produced by Park Square Theatre in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2016. Seattle Rep’s production is directed by Valerie Curtis-Newton.

The play includes performances of Simone’s songs that draw from her life and experiences as a Black woman.

In this stage production, Nina Simone (deftly played by Shontina Vernon) enters the remains of the 16th Street Baptist Church just after the bombing and finds the piano intact in the mess. A local Black woman named Sarah (played by a strong, lyrically clear-voiced Shaunyce Omar) comes in to clean up her community’s church. Civil rights protesters and anti-riot police battle outside.

Nina, articulate and sophisticated in a formal black gown, is distraught over the deaths of Medgar Evers and the four children by the hand of hateful violence. She wants to do something, to fight. “I want to build a better world!” she declares.

Sarah asks Nina who she is, and why is she here.

Ham’s play allows Nina to tell her story, illustrating how her life shaped her music.

Nina was born in rural North Carolina to a holy-roller mother. Precocious Nina played the church’s music from the time she was a tot.

A piano prodigy, Nina wanted to succeed in classical music and studied briefly at The Juilliard School, but found doors shut to her because of what she perceived as racial barriers working against a dark-skinned Black woman.

But after the attack on the church, she vows to put her anger to work, noting, “I want my music to expose my Blackness.”

A light-skinned woman comes in and both Nina and Sarah deride her for having privilege over dark-skinned women. But Sephronia (played with passion by Britney Simpson) takes no pleasure in her skin’s tone as she spits out that her mother was raped by a White man. A marcher for civil rights, the strongly political Sephronia knows all about Nina and her popular-music success. She challenges Nina to be more political in her influential life.

Nina plays her powerful song “Mississippi Goddam.” Though it sounds like a jolly tune, its words sear and reveal the hate of Jim Crow laws, punishing Black people in the South. She sings, “You don’t have to live next to me. Just give me my equality.”

She tells the two women that her politics are in her music, “my sit-in is at the piano.”

And then turning on the Civil Rights movement itself, Nina challenges, “why are all the leaders men, why are the women’s marches separate?” And a further dig: “why are the women leaders the pretty Black women?”

Startling all, a young woman climbs down from the upper floor, dressed provocatively, looking for mementos of the bombing to sell. Although she is called Sweet Thing (boldly played by Porscha Shaw), she challenges the others with a knife.

Continuing to note the needs of Black women, Nina says that “our daughters should be our priorities, not just our responsibility.” Together, they sing “Four Women,” while embodying the four archetypes of the Black woman that Simone represents in her song: the worker, the light-skinned woman, the whore and the artist.

Nina performs her strongest message of positivity, the enduring “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” and declares she is developing the “Black Classical Music.”

Though Ham’s play depicts a fictional scenario, Simone’s career in real life took a new direction after the events of 1963. She went on to perform her strong political anthems at many Black freedom protest marches, songs such as “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free.”

A genius of classical, jazz, blues, folk, R&B, gospel, and pop, she became known as the High Priestess of Soul, not an exaggeration given her enduring hit songs such as “I Put a Spell on You,” “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” and “Sinner Man.” Along with receiving a Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 2000, she was bestowed honorary college degrees.

While her renown grew through the 1960s and to the 1980s, her friends, family and associates also recounted her sometimes volatile behavior. At the same time, she was a powerful and popular performer. She would lead her audiences in nightclubs to stand and sing “We Shall Overcome” at the end of her set, according to her obituary in The Guardian.

Simone alternately toured with her band, wrote and recorded new albums through the 1990s. She became as popular in Europe as she was in the United States. Later in her life, she was treated for mental illness. Then, devastatingly, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She died in her home in the Provence region of France in 2003 at age 70, leaving her worldwide fans with a vast catalog of deeply felt compositions.

Her catalog sold more than one million songs in the last decade of her life, making her one of the top music sellers in the world, according to her official website.

She posthumously was recognized by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018.

For those of us political activists in college in the ‘70s, experiencing the driving but sometimes sentimental lyrics of Nina Simone was to learn the power of the exceptionally brave music writer who created a “Black classical music.”

Seeing this play, “Nina Simone: Four Women,” will help Pacific Northwest audiences to acknowledge the political roots of a tremendous artistic career.

“Nina Simone: Four Women” is presented by Seattle Repertory Theatre, Seattle Center, continuing until June 2.

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