“My skin is brown. My manner is tough. I’ll kill the first [expletive] I see. My life has been rough,”a character later identified as Peaches sings in Nina Simone’s powerful musical narrative “Four Women.” “I’m awfully bitter these days, because my parents were slaves.”
Simone used her music to capture the righteous anger of her people so poignantly that it has resonated for generations beyond the era in which it was originally created.
She famously said it is an artist’s duty to reflect their times – and her art became an integral element of the soundtrack of both the Civil Rights and Black Power movements.
In a fictionalized account framed around “Four Women,” Christina Ham explores how Simone’s music began to reflect the black experience. The play “Nina Simone: Four Women” will debut on the Black Rep Stage next week with founder and Producing Director Ron Himes at the helm of an ensemble cast that stars Leah Stewart, Denise Thimes, Camille Sharp and Alexis Jay.
Simone and three of the characters from her “Four Women” jazz standard are seated in the burned out building where four little girls perished as a result of the 16th Street Church Bombing in Birmingham, Alabama.
“Christina Ham did a wonderful job writing this play,” said Jay. “It talks about the Sojourners for Truth and Justice. It talks about the Children’s Crusade. There were a lot of things that I had to Google because I didn’t know about and I like to consider myself a black historian.”
As the characters sit and talk, the streets outside what’s left of the church have erupted in outrage to the tragedy. The play uses Simone’s music throughout the course of the play.
“Christina set the mood,” Stewart said. “By having it in such a horrible situation, it shows a lot of reaction to what happened. Each character had their own response. I think Ms. Nina represented a lot of people – people who wanted to be nonviolent, but thought, ‘But white people keep doing this, so maybe I should follow Malcolm X. But wait a minute, Dr. King said we can’t stoop to their level’.”
The four women embark on an enlightening discussion that gives insight on the plight of the black woman and her place in the world. The dialogue lends conversations their roles in society, colorism, their contributions to the movement and everything in between.
“It opened my eyes to a lot of things,” said Alex Jay, who plays Sephronia, a biracial woman who is the product of a black woman who was raped by a white man.
Jay had never heard of the “brown paper bag test” before she started researching for the play. She also never noticed that women were often relegated to supporting players within the movement.
“This play talks about the Civil Rights Movement in a way that you just don’t learn in a history class,” said Jay. “The women weren’t really given their due. ‘Four Women’ shines light on that and how we were not given the same opportunities within the movement.”
In her first leading role on The Black Rep stage, Stewart is charged with portraying Simone. She has such a reverence for the music legend, she refers to the character as Ms. Nina.
“The whole process has been like an earthquake,” Stewart said. “It has taken a lot for me to break the ground of becoming her – I’m still becoming her. She’s such a force and a complex person. We all have our own complexities, but Ms. Nina’s was off the Richter scale.”
Her work includes getting audiences to connect with an imagined moment that illustrates the shift where Simone’s music began to echo the movement.
“To emulate somebody that was so big, it’s challenging because everybody has a reference – even if she was not anything like what they thought,” Stewart said. “I hope that will see me giving homage and me giving respect to Ms. Nina.”
The final rehearsals before next week’s opening are underway, and Jay said she is still coming in and making new discoveries about the production and the history its rooted in.
“Some days, I cry through the whole play. But it’s our truth,” Jay said. “This play reminds me a lot of the struggles we are going through now still.”
He hopes audiences will see it and remember our history – and say, “Okay, how can we take those history lessons and apply them to what’s going on now and try to get some progress for our people?”
It’s a beautiful thing that we can explore that and hopefully the audience will learn just as much as I have during this whole process.”
The Black Rep’s presentation of “Nina Simone: Four Women” begins May 15 and runs through June 2 at Washington University’s Edison Theatre. Tickets are available at theblackrep.org, or by calling (314)534-3807.