Theatre Review

Musical 'Four Women' presents icon Nina Simone in all her complexity

When the late music legend Nina Simone said her song 'Mississippi Goddam' should have been a show tune, she could have had Christina Ham's play in mind, writes Itumeleng Molefi

10 February 2019 - 00:00 By Itumeleng Molefi
From left: Noxolo Dlamini as Saffronia, Mona Monyane Skenjana as Sweet Thing, Lerato Mvelase as Aunt Sarah and Busi Lurayi as Nina Simone in 'Nina Simone: Four Women'.
From left: Noxolo Dlamini as Saffronia, Mona Monyane Skenjana as Sweet Thing, Lerato Mvelase as Aunt Sarah and Busi Lurayi as Nina Simone in 'Nina Simone: Four Women'.
Image: Idris Dawn Parker

Halfway into Nina Simone's song Mississippi Goddam, she says: "This is a show tune, but the show hasn't been written for it yet." Christina Ham's play Nina Simone: Four Women could be just the show that she was talking about.

Set in 1963, after the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, Nina Simone: Four Women is an imagined encounter between Simone and three women at the church.

There are riots outside and Simone walks into the church to write a song to express her anger at what has happened. There she meets three women - a member of the church, an activist who works with Martin Luther King Jr's civil rights campaign, and a prostitute who comes to the church looking to settle a score.

Simone is played by Busi Lurayi with great compassion and attention to detail. When playing a person who has lived, and of whom numerous recordings exist, there is always the danger of an actor's portrayal turning into a caricature. Not so with Lurayi.

The Nina that she has crafted is elegant and poised, with body language that is reminiscent of Nina Simone when she would jump up from her piano stool during performances when she was really feeling the music. Lurayi's snappy temper embodies the stories that people who were close to Simone (like Simone's daughter Lisa and fellow musician Al Schackman) have told. This performance presents Simone in all her complexity.

WATCH | Nina Simone perform 'Four Women', which inspired Christina Ham's play 'Nina Simone: Four Women', as well as her song 'Mississippi Goddam'.

This complexity is also present in the music used in the show. Four Women's use of music makes one recall Simone's mastery of classical music, folk, jazz, blues, gospel, R&B and pop. Nina played all these genres (many times mixing them together), as she says in the show, with "equal fluency and perfect pitch." She went through her entire career with the music industry trying to categorise her, but she never conformed. Similarly, Ham's play moves back and forth between musical and serious drama, not quite wanting to conform to either genre.

Tshepo Mngoma's musical arrangement pays homage to Simone's music but simultaneously brings an originality that does not distract. The first few songs (like His Eye is on the Sparrow) that the characters sing in the show, transport one to Simone's early gospel influences. Later on, a rendition of Black is the Colour of My True Love's Hair is sung with such heartbreaking emotion that it makes you want to hold on to your partner for dear life. When the show's Simone sings Images, it brings one to the same space of longing for self-acceptance that she finds herself in.

MUSICALLY EMOTIVE

While the cast may not be the best singers, they are able to bring the emotions necessary to each song. So much so, that by the time they close the show with Four Women, you cannot help but jump to your feet in grateful applause for how all the performers laid their souls bare for you.

The other three women are as complex as the music and Lurayi's performance. When the audience first meets them, they feel like stereotypes of how black women have been represented, particularly in the US.

The rich and well-developed characters in 'Nina Simone: Four Women' show us how complicated black women are

Aunt Sarah (played with care and vigour by Lerato Mvelase) is the mammy-figure, a domestic worker who works in white people's houses cooking, cleaning and raising their children. Saffronia (played with passion and grace by Noxolo Dlamini) is a "mulatto" whose rich white father raped her black mother; her blackness is questioned by the other women and she sows a lot of distrust. And Sweet Thing - an intersection between an angry and oversexualised black woman - is performed as sassy and vibrant by Mona Monyane Skenjana.

The stereotypes that these women are meant to represent are thrown on their heads soon after they get on stage: they show us their nuance and multifacetedness. They are all angry (with good reason), they are all sexual, one is a caregiver, another is an activist, but they've all experienced joy and sadness. They are as varied as the four women that Simone describes in her song. These women are all rich and well-developed characters who show us just how complicated black women are.

SET DESIGN

The John Kani theatre at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg is the perfect stage for all the intricacies of this show. The expansive ceiling of the main stage lends itself well to the vaulted church, with high stained-glass windows, in which the play is set.

Nadya Cohen's minimalist set design works exceptionally well with Mandla Mtshali's light design that mimics light coming in from high windows, and Ntuthuko Mbuyazi's sound design that gives the illusion of a cavernous empty church.

James Ngcobo (artistic director of the Market Theatre and the brilliant director of this show) could not have chosen a more relevant time to stage this production. We find ourselves in a moment in history where there is a rapid rise in extreme right-wing, white-supremacist politics across the world. From Donald Trump's racist and sexist presidency in the US; Jair Bolsonaro's election in Brazil that has already seen an increase in violence against queer people and people of colour; to the xenophobia that people of colour have been experiencing more visibly in Europe.

These kinds of bigoted attitudes are precisely what Nina Simone was fighting against in her music. The killing of civil rights activist Medgar Evers in Mississippi and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church by white American terrorists in 1963, inspired Nina to write Mississippi Goddam: a protest song with an upbeat, show tune melody that expressed her anger at what was happening at the time in America. From 1964 onwards, Simone dedicated her musical talents to the civil rights movement and was severely punished by the American music industry as a result.

"I know Aretha. I know Mahalia. But, I ain't never heard of you," Aunt Sarah says upon learning that Simone is a musician in the show.

"You're not the first to say that," Simone responds.

One can't help but wonder how Nina Simone's status as a musical icon would be different if she had been "well-behaved" and taken it "slow" in her demands for equal rights for African-Americans, the way that other musicians of the time did. Perhaps she would be as celebrated as Aretha Franklin, Mahalia Jackson, and even Harry Belafonte. But her music would probably not be as relevant as it continues to be today, unlike her contemporaries.

'Nina Simone: Four Women' is on at the John Kani Theatre at the Market Theatre until February 24. Tickets at Webtickets.

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