By Betsy Labiner
“Nina Simone: Four Women is at times not an easy play to watch, but don’t skip it. It is an example of the way that strong theatre bridges experiences, creates connections, and encourages us to think more deeply and critically about our present and ourselves.”
The opening moments of Arizona Theatre Company’s production of Christina Ham’s Nina Simone: Four Women, directed by Tiffany Nichole Greene, literally made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Nina Simone (played with charged intensity by Candace Thomas) sings to the audience, lit by a single focused spotlight. As she sings, screams and sounds of sirens begin to overlap with her voice, eventually overpowering it and culminating in the sounds of an explosion. The unsettling juxtaposition of song and screams sets the tone for the play, which is a taut exploration of the United States’ ugly systemic and institutional racism explored through Nina Simone and three women she meets in the aftermath of the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, by white supremacist terrorists.
When the stage lights come up after Nina’s opening solo, the audience is transported to the interior of the bombed church; the stage is littered with broken stained glass, charred bibles, rubble, and splintered furniture. Pews hang suspended in the air alongside chunks of masonry, giving the impression of an explosion still in progress. Arnel Sancianco’s set design encapsulates the sense of being in the midst of calamity, finding a stolen moment away from the Civil Rights protests and violent retribution by police. This environment is cemented by Philip S. Rosenberg’s lighting design and Daniel Perelstein Jaquette’s sound design, which periodically create chaotic clashes, further explosions, and a general sense of the world spiraling out of control. “There’s a war going on outside this church,” says one of the characters, and the ambience onstage never lets the audience forget it.
In the midst of this destruction, Nina Simone tries to write a song that will speak to the Black experience in America and the struggles of achieving equality. “I am at work to build a better world,” she declares. As she works, she is joined by Sarah (played by Deidra Grace), Sephronia (played by Katya Collazo), and Sweet Thing (Kia Dawn Fulton). The interactions and relationships between the four women — all of whom are brilliantly acted — bring to life huge issues of oppression, women’s rights, racism and colorism, and movements for social change as lived by the individual. I was unequivocally engaged by each of their stories, particularly as we learned a bit about who they are and why they do or don’t participate in the Civil Rights campaign through marches and protests. The play interrogates Blackness and womanhood, and the intersections of racial and gender politics. It unflinchingly highlights how both the Civil Rights movement and the Women’s Lib movement simultaneously sidelined and failed Black women. It also questions methodologies of participation and change, especially during a scene in which Sephronia offers strategy after strategy of Kingian nonviolent protest, and Nina snaps, “Too slow!” after each suggestion.
The acting and singing throughout is strong. Thomas is by turns cutting and wounded, manic and exhausted, as she strives to “create music that wakes folks up.” Her movements conveyed a restless impatience and barely-banked fury as Nina contemplates how to leverage her fame into making a tangible difference. Grace is also arresting, with her hardened pragmatism that eventually reveals insecurities and doubts as Sarah converses with Nina, Sephronia, and Sweet Thing. Grace has a beautiful voice, and I found myself frequently watching her in moments when all four women sang together.
The play grapples with a lot of heavy, thorny issues — at times it verges on feeling like too much. It’s a necessary discomfort, though, as the United States has yet to reconcile its institutional oppression with the promise of equality. I left the theater mulling on my own experiences and the ways in which the play’s depiction of 1963 could easily have been a depiction of the present with only the smallest of changes in references to current events. This was particularly true in the moments when the characters named the four girls killed in the bombing — Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair — in what felt to me like a nod to the current “Say Their Names” movement. Nina Simone: Four Women is at times not an easy play to watch, but don’t skip it. It is an example of the way that strong theatre bridges experiences, creates connections, and encourages us to think more deeply and critically about our present and ourselves.
Nina Simone: Four Women is playing at ATC through March 19th. Tickets are available for purchase online at arizonatheatre.org or by calling the box office at 1-833-ATC-SEAT (1-833-282-7328). ATC is requiring proof of vaccination for entry to the theatre, and masks must be worn in the courtyard and theatre.