In 1963, four little girls preparing for Sunday School and church service were killed in the bombing of their home of worship, 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.
The horrendous crime impacted our country in many ways moving thousands of citizens to join Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others in the fight to end racism in America. For one woman, a singer/songwriter known as the “High Priestess of Soul, Nina Simone, it would serve as the spark she needed to give full voice and action in the emerging Civil Rights Movement.
The singer’s shift from artist to artist-activist serves as the framework for a new play, “Nina Simone: Four Women,” a provocative musical that showcases Simone’s musical journey and her decision to move from the sidelines and illustrates her headfirst leap into the fight for racial equality.
The play, written by Christina Ham, serves as a reimagined tribute to Simone and is currently being performed at the District’s Arena Stage through December 24 in its East Coast debut.
Director Timothy Douglas says in his preparation for the play, he learned some amazing things about Simone — things that he believes the entire world needs to know.
“My eyes were opened as I read Nina Simone’s autobiography, ‘I Put a Spell on You,’ which I used to prepare for directing the play,” Douglas said. “At first, she resisted getting involved in the Civil Rights Movement because she had a mostly white fan base and performed internationally, so she feared that getting involved would negatively impact her career. But after the Birmingham bombing and the murder of Medgar Evers, she reached a point where she could no longer ignore what was going on in the U.S. That’s when she wrote ‘Mississippi Goddam’ [a song which Simone allegedly wrote in less than one hour.]
As Douglas explains, the play does not attempt to tell the life story of Nina Simone but rather zeroes in on the moment when she decides to enter the Civil Rights Movement.
“The journey of the play is a debate and bonding of four archetypes of Black women,” he said. “This is the right time in America to hear the issues raised by the four characters who battle against stereotypes, trials and tribulations historically endured by Black women.”
“The music that Nina Simone penned and performed as she became an activist would become anthems for the Civil Rights Movement: “Old Jim Crow,” of course “Mississippi Goddam” and “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.” They were complicated songs. They were songs that weren’t really in vogue during the 1960s and 1970s. Perhaps now we’re ready for the messages encapsulated in their lyrics,” said Douglas who began his relationship with Arena Stage in 2015.
Through story and song, the play illustrates how Nina Simone found her “true voice” and how her music helped to define the sound of the Civil Rights Movement. Actress Theresa Cunningham, one of the four cast members, says she’s had her own discoveries about her own life and gained further insight into the life of Nina Simone during her preparation for the production.
“Nina Simone was in a constant battle in terms of confidence in her abilities and discomfort both in how she looked and how that affected her in her work,” said Cunningham, who portrays the character Sarah in the play.
“You have to remember that she was a musical prodigy who let her inner pain drive her to perfection at all times,” she said. “But as she became part of the Civil Rights Movement, she wrapped herself in her blackness — a decision that served as her inner and outer fuel. She forced people to absorb and understand her through her blackness — not in spite of that blackness. That was something that just wasn’t being done back then.”
“What’s been even more amazing are the deep conversations that have occurred during our rehearsals,” added Cunningham who grew up in Baltimore, attended Syracuse University and says she knew she wanted to become an actor since the seventh grade.
“Sometimes we find ourselves pausing in serious reflection about the similar challenges faced by women in America during our time together on stage. Nina Simone was a woman ahead of her time. But her time has come,” she said.