Nina Simone: Four Women at Park Square Theatre

Regina Williams and Traci Allen Shannon in Nina Simone: Four Women. Photo by Petronella J Ytsma.

Regina Williams and Traci Allen Shannon in Nina Simone: Four Women. Photo by Petronella J Ytsma.

Nina Simone is a musical icon whose complex personal history fueled her artistic creativity and revolutionary passion. It is no wonder that we are now seeing a rash of artistic works remembering her, from last year’s Oscar-nominated documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? to this year’s upcoming Hollywood biopic Nina. Now Park Square Theater has provided their own contribution with the world-premiere of Christina Ham’s play Nina Simone: Four Women (playing through March 26th on their Andy Boss Thrust Stage).

It is somewhat of a misnomer that Simone’s name is paramount in this production, as the show is less about Simone herself and more about the varied emotions and viewpoints of black women in 1963. Though the play does peripherally touch on Simone’s personal story, and she is certainly the central figure of the show, this is no biography or character study – it is instead a meditation on a pivotal historical moment.

Telling a fictional account of the writing of Simone’s song “Four Women,” a song that contains lyrics drawing four varied profiles of black womanhood, the show poses that Simone wrote this song about actual acquaintances made in the midst of the Birmingham riots while seeking inspiration from the rubble of 16th Street Baptist Church.

Unfortunately, while this is an interesting concept and audacious setting, and the song itself provides a rich framework of discussion, it lends itself to broad characterization. As the titular tune details cultural stereotypes of black femininity before presenting a new, revolutionary black woman, the characters based on these lyrics are likewise broadly drawn, feeling more like instruments to carry the discussion than actual people. It’s possible this is intentional due to the nature of the song’s lyrics, but it makes for less interesting theater.

What results is a somewhat stilted production that is didactic to a fault and oddly paced. Dialogue feels more like monologue as the women seem to talk at each other rather than with each other, which ultimately makes their path to relational intimacy feel rushed and fails to give the show the weight it needs to support its emotional crescendos.

The crescendos of musical outbursts, however, are nevertheless enthralling, primarily because the show boasts great vocals and spirited performances from its four-member cast. Regina Williams leads the group with a magnetic portrayal of Simone’s real-life irreverence and quirk that adds depth to her role as the group’s key instigator and moderator. Aimee K. Bryant, Thomasina Petrus, and Traci Allen Shannon all equal her energy despite being given less to work with, and the four together create beautiful, memorable harmonies. These are truly powerful, impressive voices, allowing Simone’s dynamic lyrics and potent music to shine.

It is perhaps too much to expect a world-premiere work to be flawless. After all, new works have not had the luxury of time to gestate. So, while this production feels ponderous now, the show itself has an interesting dramatic backbone that contains real promise. Even as it is, the show does well in probing the interaction between the varied elements of society that are presented, and its provocative subject matter is certainly worth further exploration. Ultimately, although the play is rough and feels occasionally lethargic, Nina Simone’s songs and the voices that sing them are captivating enough to mostly carry the show. With a bit of tinkering and a focus on character, Nina Simone: Four Women could become an engrossing piece of theater.

David and Chelsea Berglund review movies at the site Movie Matrimony.

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