Wednesday, May 08, 2019

Some Glorious Moments in “Nina Simone”

The cast of Nina Simone: Porscha Shaw, Shontina Vernon, Shaunyce Omar, Britney Nicole Simpson (Nate Watters)
Nina Simone: Four Women
Seattle Repertory Theatre
Through June 2, 2019

The effect of watching four amazing women actors on stage in the Seattle Rep production of Nina Simone: Four Women is incredibly powerful. They pour all their committed energy and heart into their work.

Their energy and power almost allow this earnest script, that tries hard to give context to an iconic singer/activist that changed a lot of lives in the 1960s and ‘70s, Nina Simone, to succeed beyond its characterizations. Simone’s story is certainly worth staging. This script includes valuable information to audiences that have not grown up with her music or are not privy to areas of tension within Black America’s culture.

Playwright Christina Ham strives to educate audiences and to theatricalize a moment of change in an artist’s life. But educational theater is tricky and hard to pull off without limiting the expanse of drama and this script only partly wins that battle.

Let’s start, though, with describing the play: Nina Simone, played with imperious grace and anger by Shontina Vernon, is standing in the recently bombed 16th Street Church in Birmingham, Alabama on September 15, 1963. Wikipedia tells you that bombings of black churches and other properties in Birmingham were so frequent that it became known as “Bombingham.” But none of those other bombings apparently caused any fatalities.

Nina is there because the death of four little girls, aged 11 to 14, has stirred her, deeply, along with the murder on June 12, 1963 of Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi. She imagines that she is now in the church while thousands of protesting citizens are outside being attacked by local law enforcement. She feels determined to use her music to make change by writing a protest song, Mississippi Goddamn, that speaks to the violence against blacks. There she meets three other women who embody the women in another Simone song, Four Women.

In the song is Aunt Sarah, played by Shaunyce Omar, whose powerful voice permeates every corner of the theater. Aunt Sarah is fleshed out to be a downtrodden workhorse of a woman whose job as a maid is to take care of the white town families in order to take care of her own family.

Then, Saffronia appears; Britney Nicole Simpson demonstrating restraint and world-weary persistence as an activist. The others call her “high yellah,” in reference to skin coloring that would allow her to “pass” for white in some contexts. Eventually, she tells them, as the song says, “My father was rich and white/ He forced my mother late one night.” While some on the darker-skinned community disdain the lighter-skinned, she reminds them that her skin-color is not something that came from a loving relationship.

Saffronia also talks about, but does not show, the scars on her body from taking part in multitudes of protests. She describes how it feels to be hit with cold water from fire hoses and how it tears the skin. Nina challenges her about how the women are forced to the back of the protests by their own men, and suggests that female empowerment must be part of the civil rights that are being demanded.

Sweet Thing appears, with a switchblade and a dangerous attitude. Porscha Shaw plays her with a truculent attitude and abundant self-justification. Sweet Thing knows that many black women look down upon her for making her way in the world by selling sex and, in this imaginery instance, stealing a dead girl’s shoe from the church to sell to horror-treasure hunters.

Nina names herself the fourth woman in her song, Peaches, whose parents were slaves and who has had a tough life. She relates her own life trajectory through the play as a young piano prodigy who devoted five to six hours a day to piano practice in an ultimately vain attempt to become a black classical pianist of note.

This is not a musical, though it embeds Simone’s songs along the way. There are awkward aspects in the manner and timing of those particular songs, since they are not connected specifically to dialogue or moments of actions. One particularly awkward moment is in the insertion of Simone’s famous song, To Be Young, Gifted and Black. It’s a hopeful song, but it’s inserted within unhopeful dialogue and is confusing.

Still, there are glorious moments that make the evening well worth attending, regardless of any uneven script issues. The ending may leave you, as it left me, breathless.

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