STOCKBRIDGE — Onstage and off, singer-songwriter Nina Simone was a force to be reckoned with. As played by Felicia Curry, in playwright Catherine Ham’s problematic “Nina Simone: Four Women,” which opened over the weekend at Berkshire Theatre Group’s Unicorn Theatre, she is a downright force of nature.
The setting is the interior of the remains of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., on Sept. 16, 1963, one day after 19 sticks of dynamite exploded under the front steps of the church just before the start of Sunday morning worship. The explosion claimed the lives of three 14-year-old Black girls and one 11-year-old Black girl. It was the third anti-Black bombing in 11 days in Birmingham; the aftermath of a federal court order to desegregate the city’s schools.
There is just enough in Randall Parsons’ scenic design to suggest the destruction inside — pages of the Bible scattered across the floor; the church’s crucifix fallen, resting on one wing of the cross.
On the opposite side of the room is a piano — firm, solid, fixed, undamaged.
“I wonder what it means when God spare the piano over His cross?” asks Aunt Sarah (Darlesia Cearcy), a Black housekeeper who has stepped into the church on her way to work to find some relief from the chaos outside. Her face is a bit bloodied. She’s been caught in a rock-throwing demonstration against the police who, in response, turned hoses on the crowd, soaking the innocent Aunt Sarah and her belongings.
“He has more than one way to reach us,” replies Simone, who is sitting at the piano. Her papers, her music, stretch across the piano, just above the keyboard. Over the course of the play, Simone periodically tries out a few notes, jots down some lyrics. Lost in grief, she says, at the murder of these four girls, Simone has come to this church — angry, resentful, bitter, cynical, impatient, radical, ready to go the ramparts and beyond — to write her first civil rights song, “Mississippi Goddam,” as her response to the deaths of the four girls and the murder several months earlier of civil rights activist Medgar Evers in Mississippi, where he was field secretary for the NAACP.
“I want to make a better world,” Simone tells Aunt Sarah. Her music is her “passport.” “I thought imagining what happened in this church would make me write about it in song,” she says.
Aunt Sarah, played by Cearcy with poignant, deeply affecting honesty and dimension, is the first of three Black women who arrive, by chance, at the church where they will question, argue and debate as they make their way toward community and connection despite the differences — class and especially skin tone; shades of Blackness — that sharply divide them.
Sephronia (played credibly by Sasha Hutchings) is a schoolteacher and a volunteer for one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s projects. She recognizes Simone instantly. She’s seen her perform at a club in New York’s Greenwich Village; listened to her music; knows how confrontational Simone can be when an audience member talks over her singing.
Sephronia is "too light-skinned" for some members of the Black community, a bias — colorism — that isn't typically talked about. But while she's considered "too light-skinned" by some in the Black community, it does not exempt her from racism and acts of violence by whites. What's more, that bias has subjected her to attacks from individuals within the Black community. Sephronia considers herself to be no different than Simone and Aunt Sarah.
“I’ve been hit by ... hoses, thrown in jail several times, and beaten by the police. I don’t wear shorts or dresses anymore because of the welts and scars on my legs, stomach, and back.
“I can tell by the look on your face, Auntie, that you thought you were special. But, fire hoses and the men behind them are equal opportunity oppressors.
“ … when I hear you accuse me of being ‘high yella’ you’ve got to know that my skin color came at a cost — a price my mother didn’t willingly pay.”
Also joining the group is Sweet Thing (Najah Hetsberger), a volatile, spirited sex worker with street smarts and survivor’s instincts that reach well beyond her 20-something years.
“Nina Simone: Four Women” wears its heart on its sleeves. There is nothing subtle here; even less that is nuanced. With the notable exception of Cearcy’s affecting, beautifully shaped character, Aunt Sarah, Ham’s women are less full-bodied characters than spokespersons for a variety of positions in a series of debates about, among other things, colorism; how Black women (and by extension each of us) see themselves and each other; how they are viewed by Black men, especially leaders of the civil rights movement who, as Simone sees it, marginalize the Black women who support them; the value of names — how we identify, label each other, name each other and name ourselves. For the most part, Ham’s play skirts the very humanity it seeks to find.
“Nina Simone …” also is about the development of an artist, her conversion here from a “Black Classical music” artist performing for primarily white audiences to an uncompromising artist-activist who, while she supports MLK, rejects his philosophy of nonviolence; who lays down a gauntlet for her audiences and the white world at large.
In her white dress, sequined white shoes and coiffed wig, Curry’s Simone, by design, is very much a stranger in a strange land. But Simone makes this territory her own.
She prowls the church sanctuary with stealth and purpose. She looks at whomever she is speaking to with steadfast, penetrating eyes. Occasionally, she will look to the air above her as if she is either summoning or addressing some spiritual essence; some goddess or goddesses. Her vocal delivery is resonant and deep; her words clipped and precise, her pace measured. She is the definition of “imposing authority.” At one point, she admonishes Aunt Sarah not only for the unforgivable trespass of touching her music but also dropping the pages on the floor. “Pick up my music,” Simone says, each word emphasized, one at a time; her tone resonating through the space with the thundering reverberations of the explosions we hear at the beginning the play.
Director-choreographer Gerry McIntyre’s unevenly paced, at times downright sluggish, production lives where it most needs to live — the music. “Nina Simone: Four Women” features 12 songs, all but four of them written or co-written by Simone. Curry superbly evokes, rather than imitates, Simone’s distinctive smoky, resonating vocal quality and style. The songs are performed, especially the full company pieces, with dramatic intensity and fiercely liberating spirit and engagement.
The payoff is “Mississippi Goddam.” “I want the ending of that song to cut folks like a razor while I watch them bleed in their seats,” Simone says earlier on. Curry makes sure that it does.
Curry spares nothing in a go-for-broke interpretation that leaves just about everything she has on the stage. It’s a measure of Curry’s skill that she has enough left for the show’s penultimate and ultimate ensemble numbers — the rousing “Shout, Oh Mary!” (lyrics by Ham, music by Darius Smith) and Simone’s own “Four Women” in a haunting arrangement by Smith. Here, in these two songs, “Nina Simone: Four Women” finds the hope, the connection, the confirmation of faith that drive the journeys of Nina Simone and these three women.