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Nina Simone: Four Women
by Christina Ham
Directed by Ron Himes
The Black Rep
May 25, 2019

Denise Thimes, Leah Stewart, Camille Sharp, Alex Jay
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Black Rep

The Black Rep is closing out its 42nd season with a powerful musical document, Nina Simone: Four Women, showcasing the life and music of the legendary jazz singer and civil rights activist, compared and contrasted with other black women set amidst the race-based violence in 1960s Alabama, the show highlights events and issues in a historical context as well as pointing out their universal importance. It’s also a remarkable showcase for some truly stellar performances and production values.

The time is September, 1963. The place, the ruins of the 16th Street Baptist Church following the bombings that killed four young black girls. The play opens with a recital by the renowned singer Nina Simone (Leah Stewart), which is interrupted by a jarring explosion. Then, we see Simone in the ruins of the church, rehearsing at the piano and working on a new song, her first protest song “Mississippi Goddam’. Amid the violence outside (as police turn water hoses on protesters and black passersby), Simone is introduced to three women from different walks of life. First there is Sarah (Denise Thimes), who works as a maid for a white family and is referred to in the program as “The Strongest Black Woman in the World”. Eventually, they are joined by young activist Sephronia (Alex Jay), who the program describes as “The Mulatto That Lives Between Two Worlds”, and another young woman identified as Sweet Thing (Camille Sharp), described as “The Sweetest Hips Money Can Buy”, and who has an adversarial connection with Sephronia that is revealed in more detail as the story plays out. The story is told in conversations, and in memorable music mostly in the jazz and gospel genres, including “God Be With You ‘Til We Meet Again”, “His Eye Is On the Sparrow”, “To Be Young Gifted and Black”, the aforementioned “Mississippi Goddam”, and the memorable closing number “Four Women” in which the four main characters each get a chance to shine. It’s essentially a character study and an examination of the impact of systemic racism on people–and particularly women–who all experience the impact of racism even as they themselves differ in terms of class, background, education, philosophies of protest, and attitudes toward one another. Also, while the four adult main characters are the focus, the presence of the young girls who were killed in the bombings is constantly referenced, emphasizing the great tragedy of the bombings and the desire–and need–for change.

The performances here are nothing short of stellar, with rich portrayals and powerhouse voices all around. The contrasting personalities are portrayed with profound energy and strong ensemble chemistry, as these women tell their stories and get to know one another. It’s difficult to single out one standout, as all four are equally excellent, with strong acting and even stronger singing from Stewart as the determined Simone, Thimes as the world-weary Sarah, Jay as the determined Sephronia, and Sharp as the brash, confrontational Sweet Thing. This is a tour-de-force from all four performers, with standout musical performances individually as well as impressive harmonies on the group numbers.

The production values are always excellent at the Black Rep, but they especially impress here, with a remarkably detailed and evocative set by Tim Jones that suggest the time and place with a striking credibility. There are also excellent period costumes by Nikki Glaros, strong choreography by Heather Beal, and superb musical direction by Charles Creath. As great as everything is technically, special note needs to go to the lighting and sound in this production, as lighting designer Sean Savoie and sound designer Justin Schmitz especially evoke time, place, and mood and contribute to the profoundly affecting atmosphere of the production, and its context.

Nina Simone: Four Women is, simply speaking, a must-see, and a must-hear. Conveying its profound message through character and song, it sheds light on an important period in history, as well as a legendary musical figure and an always important message of agency and rising against oppression. It’s a truly remarkable production from the Black Rep.

Leah Stewart, Denise Himes
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Black Rep

The Black Rep is presenting Nina Simone: Four Women at Washington University’s Edison Theatre until June 2, 2019

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