Simone holds up a mirror in MRT’s ‘Four Women’
LOWELL – The late singer/songwriter Nina Simone — who rose to fame in the late 1950s and early ’60s, performing in clubs in Atlantic City and Greenwich Village – was not about making people comfortable.
And that especially held true after she transformed herself from a “supper club singer for white folks” into a civil rights activist who waded headlong into the fray – while also holding a mirror up to herself and other Black women.
In the Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s production of Christina Ham’s “Nina Simone: Four Women,” an unspeakable tragedy finds Simone – still elegantly attired and coiffed as if she were about to perform at one of those supper clubs – in the ruins of a bombed-out church in Birmingham, Ala., just days after an explosion killed four young Black girls and partially blinded a fifth.
She will soon be joined by three other Black women — all very different from each other and from very different stations in life – who also have been brought together in the face of that unspeakable tragedy: The bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., on Sept. 15, 1963.
Most of the cast as well as director Kenneth L. Roberson are veterans of a critically-acclaimed production of “Four Women” at the Northlight Theater in Chicago last year, and the cast and director’s familiarity with the piece pays dividends, with the production able to hit the ground running even in early performances at the MRT.
There is chaos in the streets of Birmingham in the days follow the bombing — as sound designer Lindsay Jones occasionally reminds us — and as the play opens Simone – nee Eunice Waymon — is poring over sheet music with her accompanist, Sam Waymon, portrayed by Daniel Riley.
The record shows that Simone, along with Harry Belafonte and James Baldwin, journeyed to Birmingham just days after the bombing, but playwright Ham has taken that fact and imagined a scenario that brings the “Four Women” of the song to vivid life onstage.
As Simone, Dionne Addai is every bit the elegant songstress, but is not about to let the other women who take refuge in the ruins of the church define her.
And they are not about to let her define them, at least not until the play’s final musical number, in which all join in.
Aunt Sarah (Deanna Reed-Foster), enters the church to escape the madness outside on the streets and the fire hoses being used on the protesters. An older woman, a member of the church and deeply religious, she is a domestic worker who tends to keep her head down and go along to get along.
She is fully cognizant of the racism and Jim Crow laws that have combined to confine her to the lowest economic rungs on the ladder and would love to rise up, but to rise up might mean not being able to provide for her family. Reed-Foster captures her innate nobleness, but also her despair over being confined unjustly to a very narrow path in life not of her own making, much like the slaves who came before her. She does not know quite what to make of Simone and probes her with pointed questions.
Sephronia (Ariel Richardson) is a light-skinned mixed-race woman, in slang terms referred to as “high yeller,” but forced to live between two worlds, neither one of which accepts her. She is a devoted soldier in the civil rights movement.
Then there is “Sweet Thing,” (Alanna Lovely), a street prostitute who declares “My hair is fine” and decries the hypocrisy of those who look down on her.
The song “Four Women” was written by Simone in 1966 as a tribute to the four young girls killed in Birmingham, and was controversial and misunderstood by many after its release; some Blacks believed it unfairly recalled old stereotypes and that it “insulted” Black women.
Simone, in defense of her song, said that things such as complexions and hair “deeply influenced” how Black women felt about themselves and later emphasized the point with a dramatic gesture.
In program notes, Director Roberson credits “Four Women” with confronting the issue of “colorism” and said that it “holds up a mirror of self-awareness to the face of Black America.”
This is no musical but a play with music, and Simone’s song stylings serve as centerpieces, from the Gershwins’ “I Love You Porgy” to her own scathing “Old Jim Crow,” to her best -known compositions that lay out in stark, no-holds-barred terms what she is all about.
That would include the scathing “Mississippi Goddam,” the very title causing Sarah to block her ears; the iconic “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” co-written with Weldon Irvine; and, of course, the title tune.
Christopher Rhoton re-created for the MRT his bombed-out Birmingham church set for a Chicago production, and it is truly a place of ruin and despair, and the lighting by Lee Fiskness also transfers brilliantly from the Chicago production.
Ultimately, all “Four Women” also bore the burden of the effects of slavery, which have resonated for many decades and manifested themselves in many different ways.
And, just as Simone held up that mirror years ago, it has affected how Black women look at themselves – even today.
The Merrimack Repertory Theatre production of Christina Ham’s “Four Women.” Directed by Kenneth L. Roberson. Scenic design by Christopher Rhoton. Costume design by Michael Alan Stein. Lighting design by Lee Fiskness. Sound design by Lindsay Jones. Music direction by Daniel Riley. At the Merrimack Repertory Theatre through March 8. Mrt.org.