Wednesday, March 16, 2016

MUST SEE: Nina Simone: Four Women

I can't rave enough about this. 

Photo courtesy of Park Square Theatre.
I'll just dive right in: Nina Simone: Four Women, the new show at Park Square Theatre, has everything you could want in a play, and they go all the way with it. It is a must see; forget even reading this review and run to buy your tickets now!

Nina follows a day in the life of singer Nina Simone, a once-forgotten vanguard of the Civil Rights movement who is having something of a renaissance moment these days (Netflix did an awesome documentary of her and a much contested biopic is scheduled for release later this year). Simone travels to the southern Baptist church where four young girls are killed in a bombing in 1963. There, she attempts to finish her song "Mississippi Goddamn," one of her most famous hits.
Photo courtesy of Park Square Theatre.
As the show progresses three more women successively enter the church: Sarah/Auntie, a member of the church and a local maid; Saffronia, a local volunteer with Martin Luther King Jr.'s organization; and Sweet Thing, a pregnant prostitute and childhood acquaintance of Saffronia. Each woman shares a deep pain or social struggle, and each finds healing through the connections they make with each other. This show is tense, fraught with all sorts of drawn lines: lines of color, lines of class, lines of sexuality, lines of geography; but as the women come together, it demonstrates how much power we have when we decide to stop standing alone and find community.
Photo courtesy of Park Square Theatre.
Nina is locally written (by Christina Ham, who has two more shows being produced in the Twin Cities this spring) and absolutely profound. The script would be excellent on its own, but several of Simone's songs are woven into it and the musical punch they pack is intense. In particular, a gorgeous rendition of "Sinnerman" and the final piece that influenced the entire writing of the show, "Four Women," are deliriously beautiful. The show's strength is also it's only weakness - we need more songs! This cast is so talented, and I would gladly watch them sing anything they wanted. 
Photo courtesy of Park Square Theatre.
Park Square found an inimitable group of women for this performance. Regina Marie Williams is born to play Nina Simone; she has the deep, throaty tone, the anxious tick, the toothy speech mannerisms, and she brings the stage alive. Williams is able to shepherd the audience through deep, sometimes terrifying understanding of the dangerous world the characters inhabit (which sadly isn't much different today). Sarah, played by the equally gifted Aimee K. Bryant, has a spine tingling gospel voice that shatters through the theater every time she sings. Bryant shines through Sarah's learned servile restraint and brings heartaching warmth to her performance. She is a strong, strong partner with Williams, and they anchor the show.
Photo courtesy of Park Square Theatre.
Thomasina Petrus brings a robust soprano and unique perspective to the show as Saffronia, the "high yellow" who is also the only flag-planting civil rights activist. Saffronia's presence displays the deep fission of hurt within the black community regarding traditions such as the paper bag test; her presence exposes the raw emotions felt around politics and privilege, and Petrus helps Saffronia to stand tall. Traci Allen Shannon is much darker than we've seen her before (last seen as Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz) here as Sweet Thing, and her youth and enterprising nature bring the story a more modern feel.
Photo courtesy of Park Square Theatre.
Nina Simone: Four Women is an absolute must see. I can think of no better way to celebrate Women's History Month than to view this female written, female produced, expertly acted and goosebumps beautiful knockout of a show featuring four exquisite women of color. If Nina can't move you, nothing will. And Park Square: please bring these ladies back for a concert!! They sing together so beautifully, and we would love to hear more.

Nina Simone: Four Women runs through March 26; find more information and buy tickets by clicking on this link.