Review – “Nina Simone: Four Women” at MRT
A Haunted, Troubling Look at One of the Civil Rights Era’s Greatest Artists
“Nina Simone: Four Women,” is the latest offering from the Merrimack Repertory Theatre. Described as “a play with music,” it was inspired by a song written and performed by Nina Simone, the jazz performer and songwriter who challenged audiences with her uncompromising, politically charged music.
The play is set in 1963, following the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The incident, in which four young girls were killed, gained national attention and sparked violent protests.
Nina Simone first responded to the bombing in the harrowing “Mississippi Goddamn,” which she later introduced during live performances with the lines, “The name of this tune is ‘Mississippi Goddamn.’ And I mean every word of it.”
Simone went on to write another politically charged song, and the one from which the play draws its name: “Four Women.” Simone said of the ensuing controversy it generated that “all the song did was to tell what entered into the minds of most black women in America when they thought about themselves: their complexions, their hair … and what other women thought of them.” The self-perception of African American women, in all its complexity, is a central theme in the play.
“Nina Simone: Four Women” is set in the bombed-out shell of the Birmingham church. Simone and her pianist Sam Weyman enter the rubble and she begins composing what would become “Mississippi Goddamn.” As her ideas take form, Simone and Weyman are joined by a housemaid, a headstrong activist and a prostitute named Sweet Thing. These three characters engage the songwriting team and help the singer refine her vision.
The bleak, dusty church is framed by piles of rubble, while a huge, cracked stained glass mural looms over the women as they try to make sense of the bombing. During the ensuing musical numbers, the women cast shadows against the walls, and the effect is haunting and impressive.
Dionne Addai, as Simone herself, looked the part and did an admirable job of emulating Nina Simone’s unique vocal range. While one might argue that the play presents Simone as less multifaceted than her real-life counterpart, we saw before us a troubled singer and one of the greatest artists of the 20th century unafraid to confront audiences and even, at times, to strike fear into them.
“Nina Simone: Four Women” features an outstanding supporting cast. Ariel Richardson portrayed Sephronia, the activist, as a mixed-race woman belittled by both whites and African Americans. The script notes she sings in D minor, “the saddest of them all.” Richardson did an excellent job of expressing her pathos. Alanna Lovely brought a melancholy depth to the prostitute Sweet Thing. But it was Deanna Reed-Foster who stole the show as Sarah, the devout, boisterous maid who disdains the violence of the civil rights movement. The actress delivered her lines comically and poignantly when appropriate, and the Lowell audience were completely won over by the performance.
All told, the expressive set design, ever-entertaining cast and, most importantly, the impassioned musical numbers, recall the injustices of the 1960s without shying from addressing contemporary issues. It makes you wonder where we will find a voice as powerful as Nina Simone’s today.
“Nina Simone: Four Women,” runs through March 8, 2020.