Com­ing up in Philly the­ater: Nina Simone’s polit­i­cal awakening

3 minute read
Regina Marie Williams stars as Nina Simone. (Photo by Mark Garvin
Regina Marie Williams stars as Nina Simone. (Photo by Mark Garvin

When Christina Ham received a commission to write a play about Nina Simone, she knew she didn’t want to take the typical biography route. “It was open to me how I wanted to approach the topic,” she tells Broad Street Review. “Her career was vast, and I was not interested in … looking at well-trod territory in books about her and documentaries about her abusive marriage and mental illness.”

Instead, she created Nina Simone: Four Women, which premiered at Park Square Theatre in Saint Paul, Minnesota, in 2016. It went on to successful runs in Washington, DC; Charlotte, NC; and Atlanta, and makes its local debut at People’s Light and Theatre Company in Malvern on February 27.

The title refers to the classic Simone song that celebrates black womanhood in its many forms. Ham’s play considers how Simone’s music fit into the civil rights and Black liberation movements and focuses on her awakening as an activist in the wake of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Alabama.

“Ms. Simone described this event much like Paul on the road to Damascus, where she couldn’t go back to performing covers of songs written by white people,” Ham says. “She needed to write her own songs that were a soundtrack to the civil rights movement and inspired her own people.”

The play reimagines the classic Nina Simone song "Four Women." (Photo by Mark Garvin
The play reimagines the classic Nina Simone song "Four Women." (Photo by Mark Garvin

Political lyricism and progressive production

The dramaturgy incorporates some of Simone’s most recognizable civil rights anthems, including the title tune, “Old Jim Crow,” and “Mississippi Goddam.” Ham also focuses on the response to the shift in Simone’s musical language, noting that many radio stations banned her more overtly political songs, included stations within the Black community.

Simone’s story also holds a personal significance for the playwright, whose mother’s family attended the 16th Street Baptist Church. “For me, the bombing is very much like a Greek tragedy,” she says. “It left an indelible mark on Nina and on all of us.”

Hayley Finn directs the People’s Light production, which is the first to feature an all-woman cast. In previous productions, the role of the piano player had been assigned to male performers, but Finn conceptualized the part as an extension of the singer.

Shining light on the keys

“The play is rather like an out-of-body experience for Nina, where she leaves her piano and her studio and sets out on a journey of the mind and spirit,” Finn says. “I thought the pianist should be Nina as well—the splitting of mind and body. Piano was such an important part of Nina’s identity—she wanted to be a classical pianist—and I wanted to feature the importance of the piano to her and directly connect it to her.”

Nina Simone: Four Women is fast emerging as one of the most popular plays on the US regional-theater landscape. It will be seen in Seattle, in Saint Louis, and at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in 2019, with international productions in Bermuda and South Africa.

Ham hopes her play “will add to our nation’s dialogue about race by first allowing audiences to learn how integral Black women have been toward moving this conversation forward, even as they were repeatedly placed in the backseat.”

“I hope the play provides some healing for those who see it,” Ham says. “In a lot of ways, our country is built on the idea of Black always being intrinsically tied to white, and this ideology really tore Ms. Simone up inside. On the one hand, she tried to encourage Black pride through her music, but on the other hand, she really struggled with her looks and skin color, and how she looked like everything whites were told to hate about Black people. Unfortunately, this thought process has yet to change for many in our country, so maybe by calling attention to it in this production, that seed being watered might be enough for now.”

People’s Light and Theatre Company’s production of Nina Simone: Four Women runs from February 27 through March 31 on the company’s Leonard C. Haas Stage (39 Conestoga Road, Malvern, Pennsylvania). Tickets ($20 to $90.40) can be purchased at peopleslight.org or by calling (610) 644-3500.

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