Run — do not walk — to Nina Simone: Four Women at Arena Stage.
This is a one-act-and-more experience for the body and soul. Part primal scream, part well-reasoned civil rights discussion, all feminist reckoning, this play will both shake you to your core and leave goosebumps on your skin.
After the horrific 16th Street Baptist Church bombing on Sept. 15, 1963, that killed four girls aged 14 and younger — Addie Mae Collins, Carol Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley — legendary chanteuse Nina Simone visits Birmingham, Alabama, with a heart full of righteous anger. She’s come to sift through the ashes, but more than that, she wants to use her prodigious talent to write songs to make Americans pay attention to what’s going on. As she says, songs that cut her audience in their seats so she can watch them bleed.
For an hour and 45 minutes, Simone and three local black women taking shelter in what’s left of the church talk, sing, dance, argue and mourn. They might not be able to “heal” fully, but they will survive, and they have something to say. In Simone’s case, what she has to say becomes “Mississippi Goddamn” and “Four Women.” The play, directed by Timothy Douglas and going on now until Dec. 24, almost backs into the idea of being a musical.
Everyone wants to perform theatre about historical events that “resonates” today, but Four Women is singular both as a fully captured, literal blast from the past and in its 2017 moment of arrival, with white nationalists marching in the streets and Alabama again making headlines for all the wrong reasons. We all need this show, and we need it now.
Set designer Timothy Mackabee has chosen to present 16th Street Baptist not in ruins, but frozen mid-explosion, with pews strung up in the air and a stained glass Jesus (in ’63, even black churches had a too-white Christ) with his face smashed in. The decision is intended to convey a this-is-now immediacy, but it also emphasizes the fire of creation: our own, in God’s visibly fractured image, and that of Simone’s songs. Lights from Michael Gilliam and costumes from Kara Harmon make similarly strong choices, and Matthew M. Nielson’s sound design is invaluable, and not just when it highlights Darius Smith’s exceptional piano playing.
The script, by Christina Ham, thinks of all the angles you want it to. Yes, they talk about the sexism in the civil rights movement and the racism in women’s lib. Yes, someone accuses Simone of trying to profit off of tragedy. Just once or twice is the dialogue a little on-the-nose, and the show only half-commits to the idea that the ghosts of the four girls linger among our cast. I’d either scrap that or pump it up.
As Simone, Harriett D. Foy takes a pardine stalk across the stage, leading with her hips and pointing her finger in accusation like a sword. Foy doesn’t shy away from Simone’s considerable ego, which makes it all the more moving when it crumbles. She refuses to do an impression, bringing the singer out of herself instead of trying to meet her halfway.
The other three take on the personae of the verses of “Four Women,” reclaiming Africa-American stereotypes while at the same time representing the adults the murdered children might have become. Felicia Curry is ambition mixed with scars as the prostitute Sweet Thing; it’s the smallest role of the four, but Curry comes in hot for the landing. As the “high yellow” Safronia, Toni L. Martin brings the most optimism to the room, though she never lets us forget how hard-won it was. Realest of all is Theresa Cunningham’s Sarah, an “Auntie” type who balances warmth, Christian devotion and a sharp wit.
All four are great actresses who sing, and not the other way around, but the musical numbers are many of the best parts. “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” has rarely sounded so triumphant. And you’ve never, ever heard a better version of “Sinnerman.” Those goosebumps I mentioned? Yeah, right here.
I’m seriously trying to think of someone in your life who wouldn’t enjoy this play. Your landlady’s deaf, racist sister? That guy on your commute who always looks hungover? Honestly, catch them on a good day, and this could be their kinda show, too.
I clapped so hard, my hands stung.
Nina Simone: Four Women is at Arena Stage from November 10 – December 24, 2017.