Playwright Christina Ham’s inspiring musical, now featured at the Arena Stage, explores the life and music of the iconic singer Nina Simone as she embraced her role as a civil rights activist following the tragic bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963.
Readers may recall the horrendous attack which left four little Black girls, while preparing for Sunday School and church service, dead after their place of worship was targeted by white supremacists.
The stellar production, “Nina Simone: Four Women,” breathes new life into the saga of the talented entertainer, often referred to as the “High Priestess of Soul,” and runs through Dec. 24 in the Kreeger Theater at the Mead Center for American Theater. Its four-member cast of women brings phenomenal performances to the stage that will leave audiences emotionally spent and spiritually moved.
Ham uses Simone’s song “Four Women” as the foundation of her work which looks at the evolution of the singer/songwriter from a reluctant sidelines supporter to a vocal, unabashed supporter of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement that he led until his untimely death.
“The bombing of the [church] came at a cataclysmic time not only in the fight for civil rights but also in Ms. Simone’s battle to figure out who she was going to be as an artist.” Ham said. “[The play] attempts to capture that struggle as she pens what she considered to be her first civil rights song, ‘Mississippi Goddam,’ as well as other related songs, ‘Young, Gifted and Black,’ ‘Old Jim Crow,’ ‘Four Women’ and ‘Go Limp.'”
For this writer, as I reflected on my youth during the ’60s and early ’70s and the impact songs like Simone’s ‘Young, Gifted and Black’ had on my development as a Black male in America, the play evoked fears, challenges and tears which I thought had been long resolved. And while I didn’t feel “ugly all of the time” as Simone, superbly portrayed by Harriet D. Foy, is known to often say, I can often recall feeling both invisible and ignored, wondering if this “land of the free and home of the brave” truly had a place for me that I could call my own.
Two African-American siblings who attended the play spoke from the heart about how the show impacted them.
“It was a compelling depiction of what took place at 16th Street Baptist Church but it also showed how you don’t need a lot of scenery or costume changes to tell a really powerful story,” said Joanne Dowdell, 59, a resident in Northwest. “It brought back so many memories — some good and some quite painful.”
“It’s a story that’s not often told. And when it is, it’s not thoroughly or properly shared — certainly not in the schools I attended. My parents told me about the bombing because they understood that Blacks must continue to revisit this tragic act if for no other reason than because we live it over and over again. We’re still living it today,” said Kevin Dowdell, 56, a resident of Frederick.
“I recently saw a PBS documentary on Nina Simone that featured a cousin of ours, also a musical child prodigy like Simone, whose father was one of the creators behind the Fisk Jubilee Singers, so I knew what to expect from this play. But it was even more powerful than I had expected and the performers were outstanding.”
Along with Foy, an actress who seemed to be almost born for the role of Nina Simone, Felicia Curry (Sweet Thing), Theresa Cunningham (Aunt Sarah) and Toni Martin (Sephronia) co-star in the play which also includes pianist Darius Smith who tickles the ivory as Simone’s younger brother Sam Waymon.
Martin, who lives in New York City where she continues to pursue her dreams, said she discovered newfound strength as she prepared for her role.
“I am now less afraid of my own voice and more confident about my ability to speak truth as an artist,” she said. “Now, more than ever before, we cannot let any form of injustice go unnoticed or unaddressed. We should not fear talking about what makes us feel good and brings us joy. Each of us has a story to tell — I now realize that I must share mine.”
Three Black men who gathered at the play’s conclusion reflected on how it touched them.
“Hearing the names of those four little girls was really powerful and moving,” said Joe Paul, 38, a Florida State University graduate who lives in Southwest. “The four actresses were so in harmony. I realized how we far too often underestimate women, their points of view and the struggles they endure each day. I had to take a step back so I could see them in their own shoes. It made me appreciate all the women in my life.”
James Toney, 56, a native of Pine Bluff, Arkansas, now residing in Virginia Beach, said he could almost feel the souls of the characters while watching the play.
“I remember having teachers in school who had us learn the words to Young, Gifted and Black’ and it wasn’t an option,” Toney said. “For the first time, I truly understand the struggles that Black women have been forced to endure. I don’t believe I appreciated that before or the untold sacrifices they have made and continue to make for their families — for those whom they love.”
David Greer, 47, grew up in rural Kentucky under the influence of his grandparents before matriculating at the University of Chicago and eventually moving to the District.
“When the Ku Klux Klan would march by, we’d pull our blinds down. As a little boy, I thought it was out of respect. Years later, I realized that we did it out of fear. The play reminded me that even though things are different, the struggle for real equal rights for Blacks in America continues.”
“This is my second time seeing the play but I had to see it again. The frankness of this work, the perfect vocalization of the actresses — they made me proud to be a Black man. It may sound silly but I’ve even begun to let my hair grow longer. I guess I wanted to let my hair down, huh?”
An acting student now honing his craft at the District’s American University said he checked out the play at the behest of his teacher.
“I know Toni [Martin] because we are both products of the same acting program here in D.C.,” said Anthony Mensah, 20, a native of Milwaukee who hopes to become a performing artist.
“I was aware of the music but not the activism of Nina Simone. I have learned so much and even though the play may not be 100 percent accurate in terms of the history, its impact on me and the connections I’ve been able to make to both the past and present challenges of the African American community have been something I will never forget.”
For tickets or more information, go to www.arenastage.org.