Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Nina Simone: Four Women Remains a Must-See

Round two of this quintessential show does not disappoint. 

Photo by Petronella.

Some things are just meant to be classics.

Nina Simone: Four Women, running in a refreshed reprise at Park Square Theater, is just such a piece. The first iteration of the show, which premiered last year (and absolutely blew me away), stunned me with its relevance and poise. This year, with the extension and addition of a few new songs and some slight tweaks to dialogue and staging, Nina Simone: Four Women remains more relevant than ever.

For those who missed it the first time around, Nina Simone tells the story of Nina Simone as she is in the process of writing "Mississippi Goddamn" after four little girls are killed in the bombing of the church in Birmingham, Alabama. Nina travels to Birmingham to the church to find inspiration for the final verse. While there, Nina encounters three other women local to Birmingham: Sarah (also known as Auntie), a local maid who enters the church to escape the protests outside; Sephronia, a local activist working with Dr. Martin Luther King's desegregation movement; and Sweet Thing, a prostitute who has a complicated romantic entanglement with Sephronia. Each woman has a different context and relationship with the civil rights movement (notably, not all of it positive); each woman also has a unique way of dialoguing about the problems the country faces and a different solution to offer. The thing that unites them is the horror of the grotesque death of the four little girls and the desire to see better done for them in their memory and for the other little black girls still alive.
Photo by Petronella.

Regina Marie Williams remains a revelation as Nina Simone. Williams clearly has immersed herself in her subject, and has the walk, the mannerisms, the speech, and especially the voice down pat. Williams' rich voice anchors all of the musical action, and she mightily leads the show. I could watch her do this for hours (and we all know how I feel about show length). For her alone, go see this. (And by the way, Hollywood: Nina Simone deserves to have her story told in a good adaptation (think Ray or Walk the Line); call. Regina. NOW).

The rest of the cast is magnificent, too. Aimee K. Bryant (Sarah) and Traci Allen Shannon (Sweet Thing) also returned from last year's performance, and I'm so glad. Bryant's magnificent voice provides a powerful gospel counterpart to Williams' silky jazz, and Shannon's dulcet tones offset the harshness of her character's circumstances. They form the perfect quartet with Jamila Anderson (replacing Thomasina Petrus this year as Sephronia). Anderson is a little weaker in the vocals department than Petrus, but she still has a lovely voice, and brings a much sharper, clearer-eyed perspective to Sephronia's activism.

A welcome change in this year's performance is the expansion of the musical selections; with such talented musicians, shouldn't they be maximized? As before, "Sinnerman" was given a bombastic treatment and exploded through the audience in Act I, and the second act was wrapped up with a bone-chillingly perfect version of "Four Women." The ad hoc performances throughout the show are just as lovely and feature fiery vocals from each performer, particularly the gospel intro from Bryant for "His Eye is On The Sparrow." Bryant's voice soars through the theater and is unbelievably moving; regardless of your personal faith (or lack thereof), you can't help but feel swept into her emotion. Faye Price returned to direct this year and wisely lets the artists take control of their roles; she's done a superb job, and I hope to see her directing more pieces in the near future.
Photo by Petronella.

Context is everything, and while this show was mightily relevant on its premiere last year, there is a new urgency and strength to draw from it in our current political climate. The intersectional conversation between four women of color who have all, in their own way, been overlooked and belittled by society; who have all found an inner strength and purpose and way to protest (outside of the traditional "march"); and who collectively are able to forge relationships and empathy for each other despite their differences; is a vital lesson to us today. There is so much to glean from the wisdom in this play, and I urge everyone and anyone who is able to go see it, not only for the beautiful music and performances, but the powerful words and the thought provoking dialogues. Put some of your entertainment budget towards supporting locally produced/performed art by women of color. The payoffs will be exponential.

For more information about Nina Simone: Four Women and to purchase tickets, click on this link. The show runs through February 26.

Also, a special thanks to everyone who came out last Sunday to the Twin Cities Theater Bloggers latest talk-back event! We love having a chance to dialogue with you guys after shows to hear your thoughts and to help us process our own reactions. Building community is more important than ever, and we hope you continue to join us in the future! You can see the bloggers who attended below: