In ‘Nina Simone: Four Women’, Past & Present Told Through Songs of Protest
Seattle’s best talent takes stage in this non-traditional “play with music,” on now through June 2 at Seattle Rep. From previews through its second week, this reviewer has seen the production three times; and something new gave me chills in each visit.
It’s a unique look back at a performer and an era among the most influential in history — and a powerful look at the present, too.
Ain’t you noticed? There’s a war going on outside this church.
— Aunt Sarah
Insofar as any single statement can, that line captures both Nina Simone’s real-life pivot from self-described performer of Black classical music to an outspoken artist-activist, and the staged narrative arc of Christina Ham’s 2017 play Nina Simone: Four Women, which opened May 1 at Seattle Repertory Theatre.
Like Miss Simone’s music itself, the production defies neat characterization. Told primarily through Simone’s perspective, this “play with music” is part news cast (set just after the 1963 bombing of Birmingham’s storied 16th Street Baptist Church, in which four young Black girls were murdered and at least one was seriously injured), part jukebox musical, and part autobiographical sketch. But it’s more than the sum of its parts: there’s a mystical quality overlaying the whole work, fusing the period of awakening that led Simone to write the powerfully-worded, provocatively-titled Mississippi Goddam, in a way that captured the collective outrage of Black women in 1963; with four broadly-painted Black women caricatures in another of Simone’s songs, Four Women, from which the play and its characters take their name.
When it came out in 1966, the song Four Women was reportedly denied play on many Black radio stations, in large part because the women it describes are stereotypes, and ones offensive to many. They, and the play’s characters modeled on them, are named Aunt Sarah (played by Shaunyce Omar), Sephronia (Britney Nicole Simpson), Sweet Thing (Porscha Shaw), and Peaches (Nina Simone’s character, played by Shontina Vernon).
Indeed, it’s the very characteristics that make them stereotypes over which the four characters in the play spend much of their energy sniping at each other. Aunt Sarah is a devout Christian woman who cleans house for White folks as she awaits patiently her portion from God. (In the biography What Happened, Miss Simone? by Alan Light, Miss Simone is quoted describing the characters and notes, “‘Aunt’ is important, it comes from ‘Auntie,’ like the whites used to call the mammies to suckle their babies. Everybody black heard it and they knew what I didn’t say and what I did say.”) In the play, all three of the other women lash out at Aunt Sarah, but it’s Sweet Thing who comes for her the worst. While christening her “Jemima,” Sweet Thing describes Aunt Sarah’s perceived passivity as betraying the race, her long-suffering patience akin to an Uncle Tom. Sweet Thing, in turn, is branded little more than a cheap hooker. In one of the play’s few true laugh-lines, Aunt Sarah and Sweet Thing trade jabs, with Sarah landing the best of them:
Aunt Sarah (on Sweet Thing’s fur coat): What’s that thing made of, squirrel?
Sweet Thing: Make fun all you want, Support Hose. Bet your man ain’t never gonna get you a coat this fine.
Aunt Sarah: He know I’d rather him leave them vermin on the ground or in a stew pot, where they belong.
The other characters debate Sephronia’s Blackness, calling her uppity (“high yellow”); while Peaches (Miss Simone’s character) is spared the worst of it, but alternately called vulgar (for writing a song called Mississippi Goddam) and uppity in a different way (for singing for White folks and using the tragic events for profit). Ironically, it’s Sweet Thing who accuses her most directly; though Sweet Thing herself is attempting to profit, too.
These insults feel petty, but they serve a larger function, making an effective point about the ways in which the infighting amongst themselves as Black women can be just as wearying as destruction from outside forces — and the outside forces alone are enough for all of the characters to contend with. (There’s another layer of infighting introduced — a fight between Sweet Thing and Sephronia over a man — which as a plot line feels trite and strained. This performance makes the most of it anyway; and Shaw as Sweet Thing makes a good show of waving a switchblade around.)
The play comes for the supposed freedom movements, too, that sidestepped Black women’s liberation while taking their labor and support — the March on Washington, in which Black men claimed the spotlight and required that women march on the sidestreets; and the women’s liberation movement, which pursued freedom first for the White woman.
But the strongest sentiment is reserved, rightly, for the violence directed from the outside in — from openly racist White people and the systems which protected them — and this play isn’t interested in parsing out the good White folks from the bad ones. It’s 1963 Birmingham. The bad ones are the unknown attackers bombing Black houses of worship and killing children. The bad ones are the firefighters turning high-powered hoses on Black pedestrians. The bad ones are “serving and protecting” behind badges, dragging Black people through the streets by their limbs. The bad ones are letting these real-life scenes play out before them with impunity. On stage, the projections of these scenes, playing out on the backdrop some 40 feet high in black and white, are potent reminders of just how brazen and violent they were.
It’s no stretch to connect those times to today. One of the most powerful elements of the show wasn’t in the script at all. Following curtain call, but flowing seamlessly from it, came an encore of sorts in which the cast performed Freedom Song, an original song by (Nina/Peaches actor) Shontina Vernon. Calling out recent real-life horror scenes — from the death of Eric Garner at police hands, to the mass shooting of worshippers in Charleston, to the mass shooting of dancers in a gay safe-space in Orlando — the song suggests the quickness with which a life might be snatched away. Meanwhile, names of numerous strong Black women leaders over the decades were projected on the screen behind the singers. The scene feels very much like a passing of the torch — both an indictment of the current systems of oppression and violence on Black bodies, and a recognition of the long line of strong Black women today and throughout American history whose names are rarely spoken.
It’s in that last half-hour or so, over the last handful of songs, that the production gains its strongest momentum. The song Young, Gifted and Black — a tribute to Simone’s friend and gifted writer Lorraine Hansberry, who died at the age of 34 — marks a shift in the pace and furor of the play, as well as in the depth of the characters’ relationships and vulnerability to one another. (As far as historical accuracy goes, the song wouldn’t have existed yet. It was recorded in 1969 after Hansberry’s death in 1965.) Miss Simone completes, and performs, the song Mississippi Goddam, which she has been composing throughout the play.
It’s followed up rapid-fire by three of the production’s most striking scenes. First, there’s the Stick Dance, in which, beginning from Simone’s pulpit to the three women of her congregation, all four convene in raucous spiritual unity; singing the song “Sing: Oh Mary” (by Christina Ham, the playwright); dancing and pounding out rhythms to choreography by Seattle dance phenom Dani Tirrell, with a sequence of movements that changes every show, devised by the actors as the performance carries them. Second, the performance of Four Women, in which each woman finds and claims her voice, individually and in harmony with the others. And lastly, Vernon’s original song, the aforementioned Freedom Song, in encore form.
The vision connecting all the threads of this work isn’t surprising; it’s what director Valerie Curtis-Newton excels at. (It’s Curtis-Newton’s first show directing at the Rep — but far from her last, if there’s any justice.) The play is staged on a multi-layered, dream-reminiscent set by Jennifer Zeyl. (Pro tip: the set, big and intense from any seat, really shows off its depth and dimensions from the balcony, house right.) It’s backed by a haunting soundscape by Matt Starritt, and adorned by evocative costumes by Melanie Burgess. The only production element that I didn’t understand was the lighting design, by Xavier Pierce; although the lighting on the back wall accented the set nicely, along with affecting projection design by L.B. Morse, the lighting changes at key moments throughout the show (character entrances, spirits moving through) were distracting and oddly abrupt, like someone was standing by and flipping off a light switch. They were an odd question mark in an otherwise impressively designed work.
Crucially, the cast for Four Women is, well, a dream team. All have strong vocals; all play convincingly, their (very different) stereotype-originated characters, without turning them into dull stereotypes themselves; and all manage the difficult work of keeping the segments from getting muddled. Shaunyce Omar is a vocal and stage powerhouse to be reckoned with. As Motormouth Maybelle in Village Theatre’s Hairspray last year, she won a well-deserved Gregory Award and Gypsy Rose Lee Award for her performance. As Aunt Sarah here, though in a quieter form, Omar coaxes her character’s inner strength out just as well. Britney Nicole Simpson, the production’s only actor from out of town, makes a captivating role out of Sephronia. Often targeted by the other characters, Sephronia holds her own, neither a victim nor a bully; and Simpson’s vocal power and stage presence carry the role. Porscha Shaw as Sweet Thing turned a thin character (with the least stage time) into a memorable performance, finding the softness under the rough. She pulled off the rough well, too: from a dramatic entrance down the side of a cross, to her sharp-talking, knife-swinging moves on the other characters, Sweet Thing was a salty model of confidence in boots and matted furs.
And then, of course, there’s Shontina Vernon as Miss Simone herself. Vernon has a terrific voice; and she doesn’t get bogged down trying to be an impersonator rather than an artist. While making the songs — and the role — her own, she nonetheless conveyed the aura of self-assurance befitting Miss Simone’s reputation.
In less capable hands, there are several points at which I suspect a production of this multifaceted script could quickly become a mess. It’s a potentially difficult concept to follow from the start: using the characters in one song to tell a made-up story about the real-life personal and historical circumstances which led another song to be written. It has some challenging interjections, not the least of which are characters who emerge literally out of the walls (and the character of Sweet Thing, who especially seems unrelated to most of the narrative); an assortment of straight-from-biographies facts and quotes from Miss Simone who presumably would not drop them casually into conversations; and songs that occasionally seem to come out of the blue.
But with this production’s vision and talented cast, Nina Simone: Four Women coalesces into a show worth seeing — perhaps a few times over. As Miss Simone proclaims in the show’s central song, Mississippi Goddam, “This is a show tune. But the show hasn’t been written for it yet.” With this, Miss Ham may finally have written the show.
(Note: you can watch the cast perform Shontina Vernon’s Freedom Song in a video on KNKX here, along with hearing an interview with director Valerie Curtis-Newton and cast.)
A Note on Financial Accessibility
NWTheatre celebrates accessibility in all its forms. It’s one of our founding values.
Live theatre is an enormous labor, expensive to produce, and a treat to attend — and where finances are concerned, sometimes prohibitively so. NWT recognizes Seattle Rep for doing an unusually good job, among the region’s largest theatres, of offering several different financial points of entry.
Among the available ticketing options for this production:
For Nina Simone: Four Women:
Eight performances have been designated as pay-what-you-can shows, available for purchase by phone ($5 minimum) or at the box office ($1 minimum). There are six remaining PWYC dates: May 19, May 21, May 24, May 25, May 28, and June 2 at 7:30 p.m.
For all shows:
(Some discounts may not include special performances and shows in the smaller Leo K. Theatre — please check with the Rep for specific inquiries.)
(Advance) For all: Cheap seats that are still good seats. Section D seats are $17-22 (plus fees) in advance. They’re good seats. (Note: while this won’t always be true, it was from a cheap seat in the balcony that I gained the deepest insight into this particular production.)
Club 20/30: for attendees in their 20s and 30s, the Rep offers free upgrades day-of-show if better seats are available. It’s free to join, and it comes with good drink discounts, too.
(Rush) For all: Reduced rush prices (half-price for all but Section D) are posted at the box office for same-day sales.
(Rush) TPS & industry members: Card-holding members of Theatre Puget Sound and performing arts industry unions get in free (yes, free) by showing up at the box office starting at 15 minutes before curtain for a showtime standby seat.
Other discounts are available; see Seattle Rep’s discounted tickets policies here.
Nina Simone: Four Women runs through 6/2 at Seattle Repertory Theatre at Seattle Center/Lower Queen Anne. Tickets up to $90, available here. For showtimes, visit Calendar page. Accessibility notes: restrooms are gendered and multi-stall; there is one single-stall, gender-neutral restroom that is a maze to locate. (To find it: after the ticket scanner, take a right, go in the door marked emergency exit, then the door marked staff only — no kidding. You might need to ask the house manager.) Theatre and common areas are wheelchair accessible, and assisted hearing devices are available; see physical accessibility info here.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.