“Nina Simone: Four Women” at the Public Theater
By Catherine Lee
Christina Ham’s recently revised drama “Nina Simone: Four Women” introduces us to American singer/pianist/activist composer Nina Simone as she struggles to write a song to vent her fury and frustration about persistent, deadly racism.
Though classically trained as a pianist at Juilliard, Simone (born Eunice Kathleen Waymon) had been prevented by racism from advancing in that career path. Instead, after changing her name to Nina Simone to avoid family disapproval, her pop music star rose thanks to a rendition of Gershwin’s “I Loves You, Porgy” in 1958. That Billboard Top 20 single led to recording contracts, including one with complete creative control.
By 1963, Simone had released studio and live recordings from Town Hall, the Village Gate, and Carnegie Hall in New York City, and the Newport Jazz Festival, a total of nine albums. She chose and personally arranged gospel, rhythm and blues, traditional songs, and music by Black diaspora-focused composers Oscar Brown, Jr. and Nat Adderley. Simone had resolved to employ her talents and notoriety as a popular singer and bandleader to do something powerful to call attention to the intolerable injustice of racists getting away with murder.
Christina Ham’s “Nina Simone: Four Women” introduces us to Simone in September 1963. Racist/terrorists, setting off 19 sticks of dynamite at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, had just killed four girls in a Sunday school class and injured 17 other worshippers.
Simone is writing “Mississippi Goddamn,” which she originally intended to respond to acquittals of the cold-blooded Mississippi murderers of Emmett Till in 1955 and Medgar Evers in 1963. Sixteen years after Simone’s 2003 death, “Mississippi Goddamn” will be enshrined in the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
But in this latest brutal attack, innocent children’s lives are snuffed. Ham’s drama envisions Simone with writer’s block, stunned as she’s trying to compose. Simone is visited by African American sister characters who interact with her and each other.
Sarah, Saffronia, and Sweet Thing weigh issues that the composer has grappled with in her own life including religious vs. secular music; artistic authenticity conflicting with commercial success; continuing nonviolent protest in the face of unrelenting racist violence; colorism and Black women’s rights within the Civil Rights Movement; and the loneliness of Black women whose behavior and values are habitually questioned.
These visitors influence Simone to consider positive qualities and — with Simone herself as represented by Peaches — come to populate a separate new original composition, “Four Women.”
In 2017, the Park Square Theatre in St. Paul, MN commissioned Christina Ham to amplify a one-woman Nina Simone show performed by Regina Williams. In a playbill interview for that first production of “Nina Simone: Four Women,” Ham said: “I saw the challenge of telling the story of how Ms. Simone went from being a mere artist to an artist-activist … She felt very strongly after the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church and the murder of Medgar Evers that her music needed to change direction. She had written instrumentals before, but never songs with lyrics. … Her people were fighting in the streets for their rights, and her old music did not reflect that struggle. She had to start creating art that reflected the times for black people. If it meant making her mostly white audience uncomfortable, she didn’t really care.”
When asked why the play’s title spotlighted “Four Women,” Ham noted that Simone’s pro-women politics questioned “… painful things about being a black woman that still have yet to be put to bed 50 years after that song’s release. … I saw great value in telling a story that could delve deeply into the question of what exactly is an artist’s responsibility to reflect the times.”
Other plays Ham has written for young audiences also examine women caught in the crosshairs of history (“Ruby!: The Story of Ruby Bridges” and “Four Little Girls: Birmingham 1963”).
In 2021, during a residency at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, CA, Ham made major revisions to “Nina Simone: Four Women.” Ham moved the setting from an Alabama church to Simone’s Mt. Vernon home to better account for the visitors’ appearances.
“They’re not women coming off the streets of Birmingham walking into a church crime scene,” Ham said. “These are women actually different than [Simone] is and she’s actually trying to realize this in the midst of the mental-health issues she battled.”
Performances run Fridays through Sundays, Jan. 20-Feb. 12, in the Russell Hill Rodgers Theater, 800 W. Ashby Place, San Antonio, TX 78212. Call 210-733-7258 or visit (ThePublicSA.org) for tickets.
Will Smith Creating Buzz for Emancipation
Will Smith is trying to make a comeback! Trevor Noah of The Daily Show recently interviewed him about that Oscar moment in March in which he confused his fans and lost a lot of followers.
Comedian Chris Rock made an ill-timed joke about Smith’s wife Jada Pinkett-Smith, and Will Smith walked onstage and slapped Rock on live TV. Soon after, Smith accepted his Oscar award for portraying Richard Williams in the film “King Richard.” After the show aired, he was banned from the Academy Awards.
Smith was on The Daily Show to promote his new film “Emancipation,” a historical drama in which Smith stars as a runaway slave facing treacherous territory and slave hunters to make it up north to fight in the Union Army.
Noah asked Smith to explain what he learned from that Oscar debacle.
“I guess what I would say is you just never know what someone is going through,” Smith said on the show. “I was going through something that night. … It’s like when they say ‘Hurt people hurt people,’ you know?”
The film’s director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) has defended Apple’s decision to release “Emancipation” on the big screens on Dec. 2 and stream it on Dec. 9.
Smith said in a separate interview that he hopes his actions don’t penalize his team, who have done some of their best work on “Emancipation.”
Fuqua also stated in recent media articles, “Isn’t 400 years of slavery, of brutality, more important than one bad moment?’ We were in Hollywood, and there’s been some really ugly things that have taken place, and we’ve seen a lot of people get awards that have done some really nasty things.”
African Children’s Choir Visiting Nearby Churches in 2023
International nonprofit organization Music for Life announces the 2023 U.S. African Children’s Choir Tour. The tour will include 50+ stops across the country, sure to melt the hearts of audiences with their performance of popular children’s music, traditional spiritual songs and African cultural pieces.
The 2023 tour is much more than a concert. The African Children’s Choir is composed of African children, aged 10 to 12 years old, all who come from vulnerable backgrounds and have faced hardship and lack of education. However, they represent the potential of the African child to become leaders for a better future.
“The African Children’s Choir proves just how powerful music can be,” says Tina Sipp, Choir Manager for the African Children’s Choir. “These concerts provide hope and encouragement, not just to our audiences, but to the children whose lives are forever changed by their experiences with the Choir.”
The 2023 tour will kick off on Sunday, January 15, 2023, in Wake Forest, North Carolina, and will make stops in 16 different states before concluding on Wednesday, May 10, 2023, in Pinehurst, NC. For a full list of tour stops, visit https://africanchildrenschoir.com/tour-dates/.
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