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Nina Simone: Four Women

Hound dogs on my trail
School children sitting in jail
Black cat cross my path
I think every day's gonna be my last.
— lyrics from "Mississippi Goddamn," written and sung by Nina Simone.
Theresa Cunningham (Photo Credit: C. Stanley)
Nina Simone, the brilliant child prodigy, pianist, singer and song writer, began her career in bars and nightclubs but the deaths of civil rights leader Medgar Evers and the four school girls who were killed in a church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 radicalized her. It is that transition from nightclub entertainer to political activist that is the focus of Nina Simone: Four Women, a ninety-minute show at Arena Stage.

The four women of the title and a song by Simone represent in a caricature-like way the few options open to African-American women in the 1960s. Sarah (played with heart-breaking sincerity by Theresa Cunningham) cleans white folks' houses. She is very religious and thinks to go along to get along is the only way to survive. Cunningham's voice is a marvel, particularly in solos from gospel hymns and songs.

Sweet Thing, the "ho" is crass and bitter. Felicia Curry, whose work in Washington is well-known and well-respected, gives her the edge the part calls for. Curry too has a fine voice and can hold a note for what seems to be a humanly impossible time.

Sephronia, Toni L. Martin, another strong singer, is respected for being a teacher, but is scorned by whites and by African Americans for being hi yella. She is also featured in a ridiculous subplot about two women going after the same man.

The fourth woman is Nina Simone. After a weak start while singing George Gershwin's "I loves You Porgy," Harriett D. Foy picks up vocal velocity as she gets into songs written by the character she plays — notably "Sinnerman," "Four Women" and "Old Jim Crow," that carry the show which "musical," somehow does not fit.

The cast and pianist Darius Smith, always in the background with a finely modulated sound, deliver two beautiful, rousing gospel hymns— "His Eye Is On The Sparrow" and "God Be With You 'Til We Meet Again." Another soulful number,"To Be Gifted, Young and Black," refers to Nina Simone's friendship with playwright Lorraine Hansberry, who died young.

Where Nina Simone: Four Women falters is in its plot and its direction. Playwright Christina Ham's script is trite and repetitive. Audiences might have welcomed more information about Ms. Simone or the bedeviled South during the Civil Rights era; for example, Medgar Evers' name is mentioned but some people may not remember or may never have known who he was. As connective tissue between songs, the script simply does not work.

It's hard to understand why director Timothy Douglas lets his Nina Simone spend so much time with her back to the audience and why he does not give her some business other than shuffling pieces of music around.

Lady Dan Figueroa Edidi has choreographed two startling numbers that combine African movements brought to the U.S. by slaves and adapted by contemporary Afro-Americans, such as the lowering of hips and shoulders known as "get down." The second number has all four women moving in a circle while hitting the floor with long poles in synchrony.

The performance ends with Nina Simone's song "Four Women" lamenting the limited options available to African-American women. Why this number ends the performance is a mystery as it is a crucial part of the exposition. But preceding that ending is the evening's high point, "Mississippi Goddam," Nina Simone's blistering criticism of racism in the United States. Its message lingers.

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Nina Simone: Four Women by Christina Ham
Directed by Timothy Douglas
Music Direction, Music and Vocal Arrangements by Darius Smith
Cast: Harriett D. Foy (Nina Simone); Theresa Cunningham (Sarah); Toni L. Martin (Sephronia); Felicia Curry (Sweet Thing/Dance Captain); Darius Smith (Sam).
Musical Numbers: I Loves You Porgy,Old Jim Crow,His Eye is on the Sparrow,God Be With You 'Til We Meet Again,Nobody,Sinnerman,Images," "rown Baby,To Be Gifted Young and Black,Mississippi Goddam,Shout: Oh, Mary,Four Women."
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission.
Arena Stage/Kreeger Theatre, 1101 Sixth Street, SW, Washington, DC;; 202-488-3300;
November 10 to December 24, 2017.
Reviewed by Susan Davidson, November 16, 2017.

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