Wednesday, February 6, 2019

ASF: "Nina Simone: Four Women"

"We gotta sing for ourselves even if we don't like the sound of our own voices." 
"We must claim our real voices or we disappear."

Four dresses float above Sean Fanning's compelling setting of the bombed-out debris-ridden basement of Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church in Christina Ham's Nina Simone: Four Women now showing in the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's Octagon Theatre. Next door on the Festival Stage, Ms. Ham's Four Little Girls: Birmingham 1963 compliments this play as they both an attempt at healing through revisiting painful experiences of the past.

Reminiscent of Ntozake Shange's powerful 1979 "choreopoem" for colored girls who have considered suicide, when the rainbow is enuf, the four women in Ms. Ham's play begin their separate fragmented journeys full of self-doubt, presumptions about each other's worth, and stuck in racial stereotypes; but they gather strength along the way and find unity and strength as Black women by facing topics they would rather not discuss.

Director Lydia Fort keeps the character of Nina Simone central to the story: she serves as a kind of "griot" [an African poet-musician-storyteller and keeper of oral history], who in actuality felt compelled to become an activist after the 1963 deaths of Cynthia Wesley, Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair and Carole Robertson [the four little girls], and of Medgar Evers earlier that same year.

Ms. Simone was a classically trained pianist and singer who achieved popularity in many musical genres, and whose controversial "Mississippi Goddam" became an anthem of the Civil Rights Movement. -- In the person of Crystal Sha'nae, she controls every moment with a passionate desire for individual identity and a rightful place in Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "dream" for Black women in a Jim Crow society where even "Black men don't want Black women beside them...but behind them."

Ms. Sha'nae is complimented by a trio of women who represent archetypes of African American womanhood perceived by many as embarrassing: Darlene Hope plays "Auntie" Sarah, a church going domestic worker whose faith is undeterred by circumstances; Soara-Joye Ross plays "high yellow"-skinned Sephronia who can pass for white and thereby receive preferential treatment; and Gabrielle Beckford plays Sweet Thing, a prostitute whose hardened exterior hides the impact of abuses heaped on her by men and the loathing of other women.

In an intermissionless hour-and-forty minutes, Ms. Fort's powerful ensemble engages the audience with their engrossing commitment to the play's themes, told in a combination of naturalistic dialogue and an array of musical genres: the women are abetted by the masterful piano accompaniment of Darrian Stovall in a heartfelt rendition of the Gospel song "His Eye is on the Sparrow", a promise for the future in "To Be Young, Gifted and Black" taken from Lorraine Hansberry, the questioning of value in "Brown Body", an exorcism of the ghosts of people who were lost in "Mississippi Goddam", and the final tribute to identity and worth in "Four Women" that brings Ms. Ham's story to a fitting close as the women claim their proper selves.