There was a stillness about the staged 16th Street Baptist Church in Nina Simone: Four Women. Arranged with piles of collapsed brick, cracked stained-glass windows, and split wooden beams, the set design positioned the play in the aftermath of the 1963 Birmingham, Alabama 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. The play is written and composed by UCLA School of Theatre, Film, and Television graduate and current Mellon Foundation Playwright in Residence Christina Ham, whose catalog includes over 15 compositions. In an interview with PopSugar Ham stated, “for me every month is Black History Month.” Ham demonstrates this ideology with the characters she’s developed for Nina Simone: Four Women – individual lives, interactions, and conversations provide a framework around the many intricacies of the civil rights movement and Simone’s shift from singer to artist-activist.
The curtain opens to the pre-recorded sounds of a crowd chanting “We want Nina! We want Nina!” revealing at a piano Regina Marie Williams, who plays the part of ”Nina Simone.” Williams appears to stroke the piano keys as she sings Simone’s “I Loves You Porgy.” A strong voice, Williams was an original member of gospel group Sounds of Blackness and has performed at the world-renowned Dakota Jazz Club. Still, it is not until Williams begins to speak and move about the stage that she demonstrates her skillful ability to adopt the mannerisms and accent needed to transform into the character of Nina Simone. Adrienne Reynolds, soon after, makes her way to the stage playing the part of ”Sarah.” The initial exchange between the two characters seems to move a bit slow, yet it provides biographical information on the life and career of Nina Simone. Just as the two begin to un-package the frustrations and trauma caused by occurrences in the Jim Crow South, in walks Wendy Fox Williams who plays the part of ”Sephronia.” A discussion on what it means to be black immediately ensues upon the fair-skinned woman’s arrival. The three share thoughts on skin tone, class, gender, and methods of protest. Any opportunity to sustain a divisive nature between the three is remedied by the arrival of Jordan Frazier, who plays the part of a prostitute named ”Sweet Thing.”
The set and actor performances work together to illustrate a feeling of brokenness. The set design is static with no significant changes throughout the show. Leaving it up to the characters and choreography to add motion to the storyline. Upon the stage, four women and the remnants of a 16th Street Baptist Church after the September 15th 1963 bombing, are comforted with a series of hymnals and civil rights anthems including “Brown Baby” and “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black.” Adorned in 1960s attire, each actress manifests the blackness described in the Nina Simone song, “Four Women.” The societal issues illustrated throughout the play were often times met with groans, head nods, and applause from the audience. In turn, the audience was able to witness a rendition of Simone’s boldness and determination to use her voice as an instrument for social change.
Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre Company stated that their 16th season is dedicated to producing plays that demonstrate how individual “Moments Make the Movement.” Nina Simone: Four Women is a moment, an opportunity to examine black history and culture from the seat of a theatre chair.
Atlanta – Fulton County Southwest Arts Center
September 25 – October 21, 2018