BWW Interview: Theresa Cunningham Channels Truth with Arena Stage's NINA SIMONE: FOUR WOMEN
The 1963 bombing of Birmingham, Alabama's 16th Street Baptist Church was not only a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement; it was a call to action for singer-songwriter Nina Simone. Starting November 10, Theresa Cunningham gets to channel the pioneering songstress and make her Arena Stage debut with the East Coast premiere of Nina Simone: Four Women. Before there was Bono or John Lennon, there was Nina Simone and Christina Ham's new play follows her transformation from artist, to artist and activist.
"We really are living in a time that truly benefits from the artist-activist voice she [Nina Simone] pioneered," said Cunningham in a phone interview. "It is that unwillingness to back down, even in the midst of being challenged, pushing back and still speaking up for what is right that defines the artist-activist role."
Simone was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in 1933 and started her career as a piano accompanist. When a club owner insisted she sing as well as play, she adopted the stage name 'Nina Simone' and quickly caught the public's attention with her 1958 adaptation of "I Love You, Porgy" from the Gershwin's Porgy and Bess.
"Jazz, opera, art songs, R&B, pop, musical theatre, Nina sang everything. This show really tracks that, which is great because often times people are only familiar with her covers as opposed to her more political songs," says Cunningham.
1963 was a pivotal year for Simone, one that saw her become an activist following the death of Medgar Evers and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church by four members of the Klu Klux Klan. Simone would write 1964's "Mississippi Goddam" in response, becoming one of her most famous protest anthems.
"This show really tracks her conscious decision to shift from artist to artist-activist," says Cunningham. "It is set in the ruins of the 16th Street Baptist Church, and how in the midst of Medgar Evers' death, the Children's Crusade, and all these points in the Civil Rights Movement she finds herself yanked into this activist-artist space."
The play takes its title and inspiration from Simone's 1966 single "Four Women" which tells the story of four African American women, each representing different injustices suffered by African Americans. Cunningham portrays Sarah, a woman who in the song is described as 'strong enough to take the pain inflicted again and again.'
"I really love Sarah because she is in a constant journey," says Cunningham. "When the show begins, she does not realize this. Over the course of the show, she not only discovers who she is, but owns it. With this performance, I am trying to honor every person who is on the path to define themselves."
Cunningham says that those coming to hear a Nina Simone cabaret will be pleasantly surprised. The work marks Timothy Douglas' third directorial outing at Arena Stage and also features a cast that includes Felicia Curry, Harriett D. Foy, Toni L. Martin and Darius Smith. Still though, that raises the question of how to honor Simone's distinct sound in Four Women without doing an imitation.
"Our Director Timothy Douglas was insistent that we honor truth. We are stepping into this play from where we are today, so what is my truth right now? Nina's spirit and foundation is that, truth, right here, right now and it was the way she approached every piece," says Cunningham.
Even though Simone died in 2003, she remains a pop culture icon. Artists ranging from John Legend and Alicia Keys to Aretha Franklin and Common have all credited her as an influence on their own careers. When asked why Simone remains such a towering figure, Cunningham credits her truth and message.
"It was never about singing a pretty song for her," says Cunningham. "Whatever song she sang, she was very intentional about her message and that message lives forever. The thing about this show is that even if you have heard Nina, you are going to be rediscovering her in a way that has the potential to be life changing and a huge conversation starter."
Photo: (L to R) Harriett D. Foy (Nina Simone), Toni L. Martin (Sephronia), Felicia Curry (Sweet Thing) and Theresa Cunningham (Sarah) in Nina Simone: Four Women, running November 10-December 24, 2017 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Credit: Tony Powell.