On opening night of “Nina Simone: Four Women,” nearly every seat in the theater was filled with eager audience members. They were not shy in expressing their pleasure along with vocalizing words of approval. “Four Women” is a drama mixed with humor. The synopsis reads, in part, “through storytelling, debate and music, ‘Nina Simone: Four Women’ immerses us in the complex harmony of protest.
As the house lights dimmed, Nina Simone (Shontina Vernon) stepped out in front of the burgundy curtain. The sequins on the top of her floor-length evening gown shimmered in the spotlight as she began singing “I Loves You Porgy.” Soon after, a video from a civil rights protest plays on a screen above her. The black-and-white footage shows the violence protesters faced while speaking out against racism and rampant inequality. The film is interrupted by a flurry of papers flying through the air. It denotes that an explosion has just taken place and serves as a transition to the set of Birmingham, Alabama’s 16th Street Baptist Church. It was the site of a bombing on Sept. 15, 1963. Four little girls — Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley — died when a bomb placed by members of the Ku Klux Klan detonated on the east side of the building. The four girls were in the basement.
As the papers fall to the floor, Sarah (Shaunyce Omar) rushes in. She’s wearing a maid’s uniform and was on her way to work. Sephronia (Britney Nicole Simpson) soon appears. Later, the character Sweet Thang (Porscha Shaw) joins the trio with a lively and indelible entrance while donning a striped dress, white go-go boots and a fur coat.
During the hour and 45-minute show, a number of issues are addressed: The looming threat of Jim Crow outside the broken walls of the church, the role of Black women within the Civil Rights Movement and what’s the best method to create change while living in an unjust system. Is it marching? Through music? Who is good enough to be centered? The intricacies of internal politics in the Black community are also presented: Sephronia is referred to as “high yellow” and the brown paper bag test is mentioned, along Jack and Jill, a highly selective Black organization for the children of professionals.
Interspersed with the camaraderie and conflict between the ladies are songs from Simone, the “High Priestess of Soul.” Some of her protest anthems are performed in the show including “Mississippi Goddam.” When Vernon sings “Young Gifted and Black” she brings a modern feel to the uplifting Black empowerment song that includes the lyrics, “In the whole world you know / There’s a million boys and girls / Who are young, gifted and black, / And that’s a fact.” It’s the type of song I could easily imagine Beyoncé covering and turning into a chart-topping hit.
“Four Women” debuted in 2016 in Minnesota, and the Seattle showing is the West Coast premiere. The play has received well-earned positive reviews from The Washington Post to the Chicago Tribune. The play strikes the right balance between levity and weighty material. As the songs and dialogue alternate, you’re never in one particular emotion for too long. While set in 1963, the parallels with events today are ever present.
As the audience left the theater at the end of the performance, ushers handed them small sheets of paper with the names of dozens of Black women activists. Fannie Lou Hamer, Diane Nash and Betty Shabazz are listed. The message is clear: Take the next step beyond this night of entertainment and join the ongoing fight for civil rights.
WHAT: “Nina Simone: Four Women”
WHEN: Runs until June 2, tickets available for purchase online
WHERE: Seattle Repertory Theatre's Bagley Wright Theatre at Seattle Center, corner of Second Ave. and Mercer St., Seattle
Lisa Edge is a Staff Reporter covering arts, culture and equity. Have a story idea? She can be reached at lisae (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Lisa on Twitter @NewsfromtheEdge
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