STOCKBRIDGE — From the moment Gerry McIntyre read Christina Ham’s “Nina Simone: Four Women,” directing it for Berkshire Theatre Group was a done deal.
Berkshire Theatre Group artistic director/CEO Kate Maguire had sent him the script and wanted his opinion. “I thought, ‘This is the one. This is the show I want to be doing coming back from ‘Godspell,’” McIntyre said, referring to his involvement choreographing BTG’s landmark production of “Godspell” last summer in an open-sided tent on the Colonial Theatre grounds in Pittsfield — the first Actors Equity musical in the country to be performed before an in-person audience since the beginning of the easing of COVID-19 lockdown protocols.
“Its message so resounds today. It’s the perfect choice,” he said.
“Nina Simone: Four Women” is running through Sept. 5 at BTG’s Unicorn Theatre.
Ham’s play, with music, had its world premiere in March 2016 at Park Square Theatre in St. Paul, Minn. and was produced the following year at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. It imagines a backstory for one of Simone’s signature songs, “Four Women,” in which the influential singer-activist and three African-American women find themselves together amid the rubble of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. one day after 13 sticks of dynamite exploded under the steps of the church just at the start of Sunday morning worship, killing four Black schoolgirls — 14-year-olds Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair and 11-year-old Cynthia Wesley.
The Sept. 15, 1963 bombing was the third in 11 days in Birmingham following a federal court order to desegregate the city’s schools.
The play includes a healthy sampling of Simone’s songs, among them her career-making rendition of “I Love You Porgy” from George Gershwin’s opera “Porgy and Bess” and her own powerful, muscular “Mississippi Goddam,” which she wrote in 1963 after the church bombing and the murder in Mississippi months earlier of civil rights activist Medgar Evers.
Simone released “Four Women” in 1966 but Ham imagines how the song was shaped in the moment by Simone (being played here by Washington, D.C.-area actor, singer, and performer Felicia Curry), and three archetypal Black women who individually make their way to the church ruins as shelter from the chaos on the Birmingham streets — Aunt Sarah (played by Darlesia Cearcy), described by Ham as “... of dark skin. Her hands are rough. Molded from years of working in the white folks home since she was yea high;” Sephronia (Sasha Hutchings), “Her skin is yellow,” Ham writes. “She is of a softer disposition because that is what her hair type and skin color warrant. She’s never been dark enough to cause offense, but she’s just light enough to offend herself at home;” and Sweet Thing (Najah Hetsberger), “Her skin is tan. She’s enticing whether she wants to be or she’s paid to be.” The fourth woman in the song, Peaches, is Simone herself, described by Ham as “Timeless. A woman of dark skin and temperament that cloaks wounds both present and historical, Bach and blues infuse her life.”
Simone was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon on Feb. 21, 1933 in Tryon, N.C. — “sixth of eight children. Father was a musician. Mother a minister,” she tells Sarah. She began playing piano at the age of 4 and harbored ambitions of becoming a classical pianist. She studied for a year at The Juilliard School in New York, applied to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia but was rejected, she felt, because she was Black. Through the 1950s, she sang in various jazz and pop music clubs in and around Philadelphia. Her career took off in 1959 with the release of of “I Love You Porgy.”
The civil rights movement and the turbulence of the 1960s nourished her art.
Angry and bitter at what she perceived as America’s blatantly racist culture, she left the United States in 1973 to live abroad — Africa, Europe, the Caribbean. She toured internationally and continued to record but didn’t return to the United States until 1985 for a series of concerts. She performed a landmark concert at Carnegie Hall in 2001.
In 1993, Simone settled in Carry-le-Rout, near Aix-en-Provence in Southern France, where she died in her sleep on April 21, 2003 at age 70.
She married twice and divorced twice. Her only child is Lisa Simone Kelly, 58, a singer, actress and composer.
“Nina Simone: Four Women” music director Dante Harrell considers Simone “the High Priestess of music” and has a keen appreciation for the ways in which Simone’s classical training fused with her jazz.
“I play Black Classical music,” Simone tells Sarah.
Her lyrics, Harrell said, joining McIntyre for the interview, are bold, confrontational. “She calls out elected officials in her lyrics,” he said. “No other song artist would call out various states for their (racist) treachery.”
For Curry, playing Nina Simone is an opportunity “to pay homage to the High Priestess. It is so important now, to talk about who we care as Black women,” she said in a separate interview at the Colonial in which she was joined by Cearcy, Hutchings and Hetsberger.
“What we see in this play is Simone as artist making the transition to artist-activist. It’s an opportunity for her to see how her gift operates in the world when she is going through her own struggles.”
“Nina Simone: Four Women” lays bare an issue the four actors agree is discussed more in private than in public — colorism, in this case discrimination by Blacks against other Blacks based on skin tone.
“The playwright does an incredible job of exposing a conversation that is usually done in private,” Cearcy said. “What Christina does is peel away the layers so we can see how these issues came to be.”
“This play drops us in the middle of chaos,” Hutchings said. “There is a complexity and challenge to the material; the history of these women, where they come from. There is a lot of talk in the play about the civil rights movement. These women are wrestling with how to engage in the world around them.”
On her website, Ham describes “Four Women” as a “look at an artist and the women around her as their journey leads them down a path of discovery and healing.”
“The play addresses who we are (as Black women) and who we care to be,” Cearcy said. “(It’s a matter of) doing away with old constructs to be better, more harmonious. I think this COVID pandemic gave us all the opportunity to address who we are individually.”
Cearcy described Aunt Sarah as being on a mission to be part of a better society in a way “that allows her to be respected.
“She is a truth seeker; searching; and there is a deep sadness in her.”
What Aunt Sarah wants, Cearcy suggested, is access to the best in life; to “some healthy place in life.”
Curry has reached a point in her career at which she wants to use her work to make change in the world.
“I’m saying things in this play I’ve never said out loud,” she said. “We’re opening wounds so people can see them. There is no change if there is no admission of what is wrong.
McIntyre wants audiences to be challenged by “Nina Simone: Four Women;” “to talk about this; to think about what we feel as Black people. This show opens your eyes to things.”
“Nina wanted to be heard,” Curry said. “Christina has given her a vehicle to be heard.”