Nina Simone: Four Women Depicts its Legendary Central Figure in a Time of Crisis

Author: Cameron Fairchild

Christina Ham’s Nina Simone: Four Women dramatizes legendary singer and activist Nina Simone’s transition towards activism in the wake of the 1963 bombing of the 16thStreet Baptist Church. Cleverly inventing three characters out of the lyrics of Simone’s “Four Women,” Ham locates Nina’s inner turmoil within the ruins of the church and externalizes her uncertainty through the ensemble.

Brought to life by the Seattle Repertory Theatre and director Valerie Curtis-Newton, Four Women is a gorgeous work of stagecraft, with the church’s ruins making up the single, immaculately drawn set. A piano sits defiantly in the middle as a giant cross slumps on its side, and so Simone, played by Shontina Vernon enters into conflict between the content of her music (the writing of her “Mississippi Goddamn” informs some of the show’s dramatic action) and the faith institution whose ruin it prompts.

Meeting Nina at this crossroads are the other three women of the title, including Sarah, Sephronia, and Sweet Thing. Sarah, played by Shaunyce Omar, is Simone’s first foil, taking umbrage with her use of the word “Goddamn” in her music and representing a more strictly faithful relationship to the church, being a member of it where Simone is only an interloper. The other members of the ensemble take on similar discursive modes, with Sephronia (Britney Nicole Thompson) backing the peaceful protest of Martin Luther King and Sweet Thing (Porscha Shaw) humanizing sex work against claims of sacrilegious behavior. The quartet are introduced patiently throughout the work, with each complicating questions of race, class, protest, music, femininity, and faith in ways that complicate and reflect the battle Simone faced in pivoting from entertainer to protest artist. The product is an exciting showcase for four excellent performers and a complicated text without, to its credit, easy answers to its many questions. By foregrounding the show in dialogue between women, Ham lifts the piece out of easy biography and leans into the psychological and sociological forces that affected Simone at a crucial moment in her history.

That complexity is reflected in the use of Simone’s music, which is often sporadic, feeling at times impressionistic and at others completely at odds with the moment of the story it’s paired with. The best numbers are the ones which include the entire ensemble – while Shontina Vernon is excellent in the role of Simone herself, her voice sounds noticeably different from the legendary musician’s, a small point of contention that is reduced significantly when Vernon is paired with other members of the cast. In fact, the crowning musical moment of the show, a climactic number featuring the entire quartet, foregoes Simone’s repertoire for “Shout Oh, Mary,” a piece by Ham herself. “Shout Oh, Mary,” an absolute howl, brings the ensemble together in a way that is immediately powerful, subsuming the four individuals into one glorious, unified cry. After a show filled with harsh truths and difficult questions, “Mary” works as a galvanizing reprieve and a show of solidarity amidst conflict.

The final moments of Four Women sees its ensemble perform “Freedom Song,” written by Vernon, as a list of black female activists is displayed, each name appearing slowly and joining with the rest. That sense of a community of individuals working towards uplift runs strong throughout Four Women, and Ham and company explore those possibilities in honest and encouraging ways. As a psychological portrait, an ensemble piece, and a quasi-musical, Four Women lives up to the overwhelmingly powerful figure it draws inspiration from.

CAMERON FAIRCHILD | Feeling Good | KXSU Arts Reporter

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