BWW Review: Explosive NINA SIMONE: FOUR WOMEN at Arena Stage
Nina Simone didn't write her most iconic song inside Birmingham's bombed out 16th Street Baptist Church just after four girls were killed there in 1963. But she was so full of rage she could have.
Indeed, the entire work, directed by Timothy Douglas, involves the interaction between the four individuals who first appeared in Simone's title song - four African-American women of slightly different shadings and walks of life, comparing notes on freedom, their lives and their any future they may have in the country.
They stand amid the ruins of the church - bricks piled amid the red dirt behind them, pews in Timothy Mackabee's marvelous set still seemingly flying through the air. But this is no historical piece. The arguments in Ham's play, commissioned by the Park Square Theatre in St. Paul, Minn., where it debuted last year, are as vivid and timely as today.
Indeed, even the killing of the four girls in 1963 is still in headlines today, because the prosecutor who went after the bombers 40 years after the fact and won convictions this century is the candidate running against Roy Moore next month in Alabama. The pews are still flying in the air.
The anger and rage that filled Simone - and may have, as a result, derailed her commercial career - is tapped by Harriett D. Foy's passionate performance. Yes, she arrives in fancy shoes and dress as if directly from a nightclub engagement, but she demonstrates before the evening is over she will not be deterred from her mission even as she shares with her unlikely sisters in the church.
Foy looks nothing like Simone, which is fine since the singer's image for many has been lost to memory, but she's got a strong voice verging on baritone that made the original so compelling.
While not a musical exactly, music does erupt in "Four Women," starting with the adaptation of Gershwin's "I Loves You Porgy" that first put Simone on the map. Amid traditional hymns and songs of early 20th century like Bert Williams' "Nobody," there are Simone's own compelling compositions, from "Old Jim Crowe" to "Sinnerman" to her adaptation of "To Be Young, Gifted and Black."
With stirring vocal arrangements by Darius Smith, the musical director who also shares the stage as a pianist, the songs come alive.
The only regret is that Foy herself doesn't play the piano. That was the original intent of the woman born Eunice Waymon in rural Tryon, N.C., who got scholarships and lessons that encouraged her ambition to be the first classical black pianist (she only deigned to sing when ordered to do so at the nightclubs she worked to make a living).
Inventive, classical-styled piano accompanies her strongest songs and though it would have been a tall order to find an actress who could both sing and play in that manner, that aspect is missed a bit here.
Each of the other women are standouts as well, with their own stirring voices and convincing performances. Theresa Cunningham is undeniable as the cleaning woman and church attender who seems put off by Simone's high style. Toni L. Martin is just right as an activist who is distrusted at first for her lighter skin and the accomplished Felicia Curry is a mysterious, knife-wielding woman of the night who confronts them all.
Their discussions make way eventually to the show's high point, the career-breaking "Mississippi Goddam," a song with a word that couldn't be said on the radio with a sentiment that couldn't not be expressed. Its urgent lyrics still reach out half a century later to a situation in the South that still invites condemnation: "Alabama's gotten me so upset ...And everybody knows about Mississippi goddamn."
"Can't you feel it?" she sings. "Lord have mercy on this land of mine," one she says is "full of lies."
And though she says in its recording, "This is a show tune but the show hasn't been written for it yet," "Nina Simone: Four Women" may certainly be the one.
Its impact couldn't be any more immediate.
Running time: One hour, 45 minutes with no intermission.
"Nina Simone: Four Women" runs through Dec. 24 at the Kreeger Theater of Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth Street SW, Washington, D.C. Tickets at 202-488-3300 or online.