BWW Review: Seattle Rep's Stunning NINA SIMONE: FOUR WOMEN
Dear Readers, when seeing the west coast premiere of Christina Ham's "Nina Simone: Four Women", currently at the Seattle Rep, if you're expecting a light, jukebox musical about the works of Nina Simone then you may be disappointed and you probably don't know much about Nina Simone in the first place as you couldn't really call her style "light". But what you are in for is a searing look at how Simone branched out from American Songbook covers to her own distinct style of songs that spurred the civil rights movement.
Ham's show takes the four archetypes of black women mentioned in Simone's song "Four Women" and embodies them on stage. Aunt Sarah (Shaunyce Omar), the dark skinned black woman relegated to servitude, Sephronia (Britney Nicole Simpson), the yellow skinned half black woman caught in between worlds, Sweet Thing (Porscha Shaw), the tan prostitute selling herself to make it through, and Peaches who is represented by Nina Simone herself (Shontina Vernon) as the loud, brash brown skinned woman. The women come together in the storytelling context of escaping the riots following the murder of four black girls in the bombing of the 16thStreet Baptist Church in Birmingham. They find shelter from the chaos outside in the ruins of the church and as Simone attempts to compose a song to express her feelings over the bombing as well as the murder of Medgar Evans entitled "Mississippi Goddam", the four women examine the state of their world as well as the divides between each other.
Artfully brought to life by director Valerie Curtis-Newton, the piece mixes songs from Simone's career throughout, creating a look at her journey. But beyond a simple biography what the show does beautifully is to ebb and flow with emotion and humor as we build to the eventual crescendo the same way one of Simone's songs would, crafting the show as a song within itself. And the women examine these issues surrounding them while spotlighting the issues that tear them apart from each other when they should come together for a common goal all the while surrounded by the ruins of an act of hate stunningly portrayed in a set by Jennifer Zeyl, lights from Xavier Pierce, sound from Matt Starritt and projections from L.B. Morse. And I must mention the costumes from Melanie Burgess which capture each of the archetypes perfectly.
The cast is nothing short of a quartet of powerful women who will thrill you with their voices one minute and deliver an emotional gut punch the next. Each embodies their role with grace and confidence while still being able to let their own vulnerabilities show through. Vernon brings Simone to life right in front of our eyes and commands the stage with her fabulous vocals and take no prisoners attitude. Omar is able to bring the power belt to a song like no one else and her portrayal of Aunt Sarah is heartbreaking. Simpson too shows off some insane pipes and manages the story of this woman who doesn't belong to either world with a tragic beauty. And Shaw swoops in like a cyclone with her own brand of attitude and bravado while completing the sound of the vocals magnificently.
At first glance this show will not be for everyone, but in today's racially charged society it should be. We need to spotlight and not brush aside the tragedies and powerful uprisings of the past so we can recognize them when we see them today and hopefully avoid future injustice, pain, and inequality. And so, with my three-letter rating system, I give the Seattle Rep's production of "Nina Simone: Four Women" a "still reeling from the blow" YAY. Go for the potent message or go for the mighty voices. Just go!