“Nina Simone: Four Women” - Understanding Racial Rage In The 60s
There are many remarkable things going on with “Nina Simone; Four Women,” a play with music, that is at the Unicorn Theatre of the Berkshire Theatre Group through September 5. The concept is compelling, the performances perfect, the writing astute and the music is phenomenal.
However, to me, the most mystifying element is that a work that is inspired and driven by anger is so rational, revealing, and even illuminating. I won’t go so far as saying it is healing, but you leave the theater understanding the emotions that consumed the African-American community in the 1960s.
In 1966, the singer-composer Nina Simone was so affected by the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, she wrote a song titled “Four Women.” It was a tribute to the four young women who were murdered in that act of terrorism.
In the song, Simone created a portrait of four Black female stereotypes. There was Simone herself, Aunt Sarah, a God-fearing housecleaner, Sephronia young light-skinned activist and Sweet Thing a tough prostitute. The point of the song is that there can be no single portrait of any person. Each individual, no matter what color or background has worth as a human being.
Simone created the song out of anger about the bombing. Her goal was to express how the rest of America viewed African-American females – as invisible. If White society saw all Blacks as stereotypes, it helped to make the dead women seem almost anonymous – thus lessening the tragedy of their deaths.
Playwright Christine Ham, takes Simone’s concept one step further by bringing each representative to life on stage. This is not a quartet of unified friends, or a mutual admiration society. They are individuals who have the same goals, but their approach to a common problem is as diverse and as different as are their lives. Throughout the play they argue, discuss and come to a begrudging respect for one another.
And they sing. Oh, how they sing. There are a dozen songs in the piece that were either written by or associated with Nina Simone. Each number is presented not only as a thrilling musical interlude, but they serve as a dramatic punctuation mark to the onstage drama. And too, the uplifting gospel songs offer relief from the onstage tensions.
It’s safe to say, without the music “Four Women” could be little more than a didactic exercise. It’s also safe to say without the support of Dante Harrel making the musical orchestrations so theatrical they would not be so important to the play. He, on piano, and Diego Mongue on drums offer superb support on every number.
The same can be said about the excellent cast and direction. Felicia Curry is an unforgettable Nina Simone. She’s stern, egotistical, arrogant, articulate and intellectually reasonable. A potentially dislikeable presence, Curry redeems her by showing her as a figure filled with righteous passion.
In real life, the bombing changed the singer’s life. Instead of being content with a satisfying successful career that touched all genres of music, she devoted her talent to protesting the inequality of the races and used her fame for causes rather than just providing high quality entertainment.
Curry is magnetic throughout the work. Whether it be as an unsmiling, uncompromising and unrelenting spokesperson against passive activism, or a sounding board for others to express different views. Curry makes this an almost one-woman show.
But that doesn’t happen. The other actors might have less dynamic roles, but they portray them perfectly. Darlesia Cearcy creates a tender caring Aunt Sarah who is an excellent counterpoint to the sophisticated take-no-prisoners approach by Simone. Indeed, the two spend much of the first part of the show alone together on stage. They not only set the table for visits from the other two characters, their work defines the point of the play. That point is opposites can agree without agreeing on everything.
Sasha Hutchings is a gentle but strong young woman who believes in peaceful protest and prefers Martin Luther King over Malcolm X. But her light skin makes her a “Yellow” and even in the world of Black culture she is made to feel like an outsider.
The true outsider is Sweet Thing. Her life as a prostitute and her unpredictable rage makes her a disrespectful person with the other characters. Superior work by Najah Hetsberger forces the other characters and the audience to understand her as a person and see her profession as a means of survival. She makes the point that protest, just like surrender, comes in various shapes and forms.
Thanks to the direction of Gerry McIntyre the awkward form of the play finds a unified whole. His choreography brings a dynamic energy to the music numbers and his understanding of what the play is trying to say saves the experience from being a 90-minute lecture. McIntyre combines the soul of the music with the spirit of the play – making for an exceptional theater experience.
“Nina Simone: Four Women” through September 5 at Unicorn Theatre of Berkshire Theatre Group in Stockbridge, MA. for tickets and schedule information call 413-997-4444 or go to BerkshireTheatreGroup.org Proof of vaccination is needed and masks are mandatory inside theater.
Bob Goepfert is theater reviewer for the Troy Record.
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