BWW Review: NINA SIMONE: FOUR WOMEN at Arena Stage - Powerful, Provocative, and Poignant
I was recently in Atlanta, GA which is noted for its many museums. They have a Coca-Cola Museum, College Football Hall of Fame, the second largest aquarium in the world, the home of CNN, and the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library. But the highlight for me was the Civil Rights Museum. It was incredibly moving. When I saw the exhibit concerning the death of four young Black girls in Birmingham, Alabama's at the predominately African-American 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963, I did not realize it would come alive at the Arena Stage via Christina Ham's NINA SIMONE: FOUR WOMEN. Ham used this brutal, senseless event as a background for her play because her mother's family attended the church.
On Sunday Sept. 15, 1963, just two and a half weeks after Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream " speech, four members of the Ku Klux Klan planted 15 sticks of dynamite under the basement girl's bathroom at the church. As church members prepared for Sunday services, the bomb exploded at 10:19 a.m. killing Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Addie Mae Collins (all 14 year olds) and 11 year old Denise McNair. I thought it was necessary to mention their names. More than 20 other members of the congregation were injured. This was the third church bombing in Birmingham in 11 days after a federal order came down to integrate Alabama's school system. Alabama seems to be in the news a lot recently. In fact the new Senator from Alabama Doug Jones when U.S. Attorney prosecuted those responsible for the killings.
It was only weeks ago that I saw the amazing LADY DAY AT EMERSON'S BAR AND GRILL at the Rep Stage in Columbia, MD which was a salute to the great Billie Holiday. And now Nina Simone comes alive.
When you walk into the Arena Stage's Kreeger Theater you are faced with a set that is certainly quite striking. Once again Set Designer Timothy Mackabee (a Baltimore native and graduate of the Carver Center for Arts and Technology) has risen to the occasion depicting a huge stained glass window at an angle of the 16th Street Baptist Church with the face of Jesus destroyed. There are eight wooden church pews hanging from the rafters, on the stage, and even in front of the stage with bricks and mortar scattered on the theater floor.
When Nina Simone (played by the spectacular Harriett D. Foy) makes her entrance from stage left wearing a lovely black floor -length dress, she immediately sits solemnly down on the wreckage with her head down. The theater is eerily and absolutely quiet. Shortly, the audience begins to applaud. (I do wonder if this occurs at every performance.) Then Simone stands erect gracefully and makes an elegant curtsy. It is obvious she is demanding respect and she gets it.
Simone was a talented, classically trained pianist and songstress who performed popular music until that eventful day in 1963 which turned her life around. She was a popular performer and I recall seeing her sing on the "Ed Sullivan Show". She loved the blues and jazz.
But her life turned around in 1963. She became a civil rights activist and used music to get her point across much like Billie Holiday did with her "Strange Fruit" number.
You will hear five of her songs: "Old Jim Crow", "Sinnerman", "To Be Young Gifted and Black" (co-written by Weldon Irving), "Four Women" and one of her most famous and controversial numbers "Mississippi Goddam" which was banned in many areas. (I could not but help but notice that the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum opens this week.) I had never heard these songs before but they are really quite moving.
- evening begins with a solo by Simone singing from the George Gershwin musical PORGY AND BESS, "I Loves You Porgy". re are other numbers many will recognize like the Traditional Gospel Hymn "His Eye is on the Sparrow". Even the playwright has a number, "Shout: Oh, Mary".
They all sing with power, purpose, and passion and their performances are enhanced by the wonderful Chorography of Lady Kane Figueroa Edidi. Accompanying the women at the keyboards is the talented Darius Smith (Sam).
The show is enhanced by the wonderful and heart-wrenching direction by Timothy Douglas.
Simone was a prolific performer with more than 20 albums. She loved Baltimore and even has an album entitled "Baltimore".
Netflix has a documentary entitled "What Happened Nina Simone using interviews, songs, and letters that will tell the jazz icon's story.
I'm a huge fan of Foy who I recall from August Wilson's SEVEN GUITARS at Baltimore's Center Stage and her role in the Broadway hit musical MAMMA MIA! where she shined. I saw her in this show many times and enjoyed her every minute she was on stage. I have never seen her like this though.
There are post-show conversations with the artists on Dec. 12, 13, and 19 following the noon performance and on Dec. 21 following the 8 p.m. performance.
The show runs just under two hours with no intermission and runs through Dec. 24, 2018 along with the wonderful musical PAJAMA GAME which also runs at Arena Stage's Fichandler Stage until Dec. 24. You could even make it a double-header seeing both in one day. For tickets, call 202-488-3300 or visit www.arenastage.org.
Just heard that Nina Simone will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio.