Nina Simone is widely known as the personification of the tortured genius. Her life was made even more complicated as one of the countless African Americans forced to endure generations of systematic barriers impeded on their life and experiences that stretched back to when black people were kept in bondage and all the way through the onset of the Civil Rights Era. Contrary to popular belief, not even successful artists were immune to being held back because of their blackness. Despite years of dedicated training and natural talent, Eunice Waymon was refused the opportunity to achieve her life’s goal in becoming a classical pianist. But as Nina Simone, she fulfilled her destiny as an artist who provided unflinching insight into the trauma imposed on African Americans through racial violence and segregation. Her music was part of the soundtrack for the movement as she tuned into the suffering, rage and frustration of a people in the midst of fighting against the oppression intended to keep them from their well-deserved piece of the American dream.
Through its final production of the 42nd season, The Black Rep asks its patrons to imagine with them the moment that created the seismic shift of Simone from successful singer and pianist to a cultural icon – the bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church.
Christina Ham’s “Nina Simone: Four Women” brings to life the characters of Simone’s iconic jazz standard “Four Women” – substituting Simone herself for Peaches. The ladies sit in the burned out sanctuary of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church in the wake of the bombing by the Ku Klux Klan that took the life of four young parishioners and sparked international outrage.
Simone eventually became both an ambassador for black pride and a musical translator of black suffering as it relates to racism and the impact on those it forced into second class citizenship. The audience’s palpable reaction to the play indicate a crowd favorite – as did the impressive number of guests in the seats for Friday’s opening night production at Washington University’s Edison Theatre.
Simone is engaged in an attempt to create an artistic response to the righteous anger as the streets erupt with protest as a result of the killings when Aunt Sarah enters the building seeking refuge from the chaos happening just outside the ravaged walls. Sephronia follows and then Sweet Thing. While processing the world as they know it coming undone, they engage in discourse that addresses issues such as colorism, classism and misogyny and the complicated internal layers that further impede the fight for social justice, equality and even artistic freedom.
Simone’s music – and her struggles – take center stage, alongside the women Ham took the liberty of expounding upon with her play.
The play itself – which weaves in Simone’s music and other tunes performed by her and the quartet ensemble – is interesting and insightful, but falls short in a few places, mainly, in how the characters forge their respective connections. Yes, the situation is imagined, but Ham still could have been more realistic in some of the situations and connections between the ladies. However, audiences seem to thoroughly enjoy every element of the story as it unfolds – even the small helping of urban stage play elements woven into the writing.
The Black Rep’s presentation of the work has the advantage of Ron Himes’ precise direction and solid performances to carry it through. Watching Denise Thimes’ impressive take on Aunt Sarah was particularly enjoyable. A veteran of the stage, though known mostly to St. Louis audiences as a jazz singer, Thimes captures the essence of her character – a domestic worker who relies on her faith to manage the indignities imposed upon her for simply being a black woman born in the south. In her first leading role, Leah Stewart showcases her potential as an actress with her portrayal of Simone – as do newcomers Camille Sharp and Alex Jay as Sweet Thing and Sephronia.
The technical elements of “Nina Simone: Four Women” accentuate the experience of the play. The scenic design of Tim Jones, costume design of Nikki Glaros, lighting design of Sean Savoie and sound design of Justin Schmitz transport the audience to one of America’s darkest hours. With Glaros’ dressing of Thimes as Sarah and Sharp as Sweet Thing, she nails the intention of the characters – and illustrates the importance of a character’s connection to his or her clothing.
The Black Rep’s presentation of Nina Simone: Four Women continues at Washington University’s Edison Theatre (6445 Forsyth Blvd.) through June 2. For tickets and/or more information, visit www.theblackrep.org or call (314) 534-3807.