Review: Berkshire Theater’s ‘Nina Simone: Four Women’ Got Heart Up | Arts-theater
STOCKBRIDGE – On and off stage, singer-songwriter Nina Simone was a force to be reckoned with. As played by Felicia Curry in playwright Catherine Ham’s problematic âNina Simone: Four Women,â which debuted this weekend at the Berkshire Theater Group’s Unicorn Theater, she’s downright a force of nature.
The setting is inside the remains of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama on September 16, 1963, a day after 19 sticks of dynamite exploded under the steps of the church just before the service began. Sunday morning. The explosion claimed the lives of three 14-year-old black girls and an 11-year-old black girl. It was the third anti-black bombardment in 11 days in Birmingham; following an order of the Federal Court for the desegregation of schools in the city.
There is just enough in Randall Parsons’ stage design to suggest the destruction within – pages of the Bible strewn across the floor; the fallen church crucifix, resting on a wing of the cross.
Across the room is a piano – firm, solid, fixed, intact.
âI wonder what it means when God spares the piano on his cross? Asks Aunt Sarah (Darlesia Cearcy), a black housekeeper who entered the church on her way to work to find relief from the chaos outside. His face is a little bloody. She was caught in a stone-throwing protest against police who, in response, threw pipes at the crowd, soaking innocent Aunt Sarah and her belongings.
“He has more than one way of reaching us,” replies Simone, seated at the piano. His papers, his music, lie on the piano, just above the keyboard. During the play, Simone periodically tries a few notes, notes a few words. Lost in grief, she says, during the murder of these four girls, Simone came to this church – angry, resentful, bitter, cynical, impatient, radical, ready to cross the ramparts and beyond – to write his first civil rights song, “Mississippi Goddam”, as his response to the deaths of the four daughters and the murder a few months earlier of civil rights activist Medgar Evers in Mississippi, where he was field secretary for the NAACP .
âI want to make a better world,â Simone told Aunt Sarah. His music is his âpassportâ. âI thought imagining what happened in that church would make me write about it in song,â she says.
Aunt Sarah, played by Cearcy with poignant and deeply touching honesty and dimension, is the first of three black women to arrive, by chance, at church where they will question, discuss and debate as they walk into the community. and the connection despite the differences – class and above all skin tone; shades of Blackness – which divide them sharply.
Sephronia (played credibly by Sasha Hutchings) is a teacher and volunteer for one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s projects. She immediately recognizes Simone. She has seen her perform at a club in Greenwich Village, New York; listened to his music; knows how confrontational Simone can be when a member of the audience talks about her singing.
Sephronia has “too light skin” for some members of the black community, a bias – colorism – that is usually not talked about. But while she is considered “too clear” by some members of the black community, this does not exempt her from racism and acts of violence committed by whites. In addition, this bias subjected her to attacks from individuals within the black community. Sephronia considers herself to be no different from Simone and Aunt Sarah.
âI was hit byâ¦ garden hoses, thrown in jail several times and beaten by the police. I don’t wear shorts or dresses anymore because of the marks and scars on my legs, stomach and back.
âI can tell by the look on your face, aunt, that you thought you were special. But, the fire hoses and the men behind them are equal opportunity oppressors.
“â¦ When I hear you accusing me of being ‘high yella’ you should know that my skin color comes at a price – a price my mother didn’t willingly pay.”
Sweet Thing (Najah Hetsberger) also joins the group, a volatile and fiery sex worker with street intelligence and survivor instincts that extend well beyond her 20+ years.
âNina Simone: Four Womenâ wears her heart on her sleeves. There is nothing subtle here; even less that is nuanced. With the notable exception of Cearcy’s touching and beautifully formed character, Aunt Sarah, the women of Ham are less bodied characters than spokespersons for a variety of positions in a series of debates on, among other things, colorism; how black women (and by extension each of us) see and see each other; how they are viewed by black men, especially leaders of the civil rights movement who, according to Simone, marginalize black women who support them; the value of names – how we identify ourselves, we label each other, we name ourselves and we name ourselves. For the most part, Ham’s piece bypasses the very humanity it seeks to find.
âNina Simoneâ¦â also talks about the development of an artist, from her conversion here from a âBlack Classical musicâ artist performing mainly in front of a white audience to an uncompromising artist-activist who, while supporting MLK, rejects her philosophy of non-violence; who poses a glove to his audience and to the white world in general.
In her white dress, glittery white shoes, and styled wig, Curry’s Simone, by design, is truly a stranger in a strange land. But Simone makes this territory her own.
She prowls in the sanctuary of the church with discretion and determination. She watches who she is talking to with firm, penetrating eyes. Occasionally she will look at the air above her as if she is invoking or addressing a spiritual essence; a goddess or goddesses. Her vocal delivery is resonant and deep; his cut and precise words, his measured rhythm. It is the definition of “imposing authority”. At one point, she berates Aunt Sarah not only for the unforgivable violation of her music, but also for dropping the pages on the floor. âTake my music,â said Simone, each word underlined, one at a time; its tone resonating in space with the thunderous reverberations of explosions that one hears at the beginning of the piece.
The unevenly paced, sometimes downright slow, production of director-choreographer Gerry McIntyre lives where it needs to live most: music. “Nina Simone: Four Women” includes 12 songs, all but four written or co-written by Simone. Curry superbly evokes, rather than mimics, the distinctive smoky and resonant vocal quality and style of Simone. The songs are performed, especially the full company pieces, with dramatic intensity and a fiercely liberating spirit and commitment.
The award is “Mississippi Goddam”. âI want the ending of this song to cut people like a razor while I watch them bleed in their seats,â Simone said earlier. Curry makes sure that’s the case.
Curry spares nothing in an irresistible rendition that leaves just about everything she has on stage. It’s a measure of Curry’s skill that he has enough left for the penultimate and final ensemble issues of the series – the vibrant âShout, Oh Mary!â (lyrics by Ham, music by Darius Smith) and “Four Women” by Simone in a haunting arrangement by Smith. Here, in these two songs, âNina Simone: Four Womenâ finds the hope, the connection, the confirmation of the faith that animates the journeys of Nina Simone and these three women.