Monday, December 04, 2017

Nina Simone: Four Women

I saw 'Nine Simone: Four Women" at Arena Stage Friday and I'm still unpacking how I feel.  I thought I knew more than I did about Nina Simone when I arrived and it became clear to me that I did not.  I imagine that's sort of the point of a play like this, she's a figure that exists as part of the landscape of pop culture and yet I imagine I'm not the only one who would learn a lot from a play like this.  Part of what I'm still figuring out is how much of the research I did after seeing the play that made pieces of it clearer is a sign of a good play versus a sign that it's not as accessible as it could be to those not as well versed in the Simone landscape.
This is not to say that I don't think the play stands on it's own or that I think it doesn't make sense to some person who walks into a theater never having heard of Nina Simone.  I think it does.  But it is littered with Nina Simone Easter eggs.
The play itself is set in the bombed out 16th Street Baptist Church.  This was the moment that the playwright (per the interview in the program) felt pushed Nina from keeping her activist life and her singer life separate.  There are songs throughout, most Nina Simone songs, although a few others as well.  A jukebox musical about a woman with quite a catalogue is sort of a different experience.  None of the songs felt shoehorned in.  There are four women in the cast, as you might suspect from the title and if you were familiar with that song.  They enter the church in phases, although they are all onstage the whole time, so it creates an interesting mental shift as they go from background swayers to characters.  Nina is working on "Mississippi Godddam" and discussing activism and the treatment of women in the movement, although the characters also argue about their archetypes and how they each deal with their own perceptions and challenges and colorism. 
The play has no intermission and I don't know where you would put one but it did mean it was a lot.  There was laughter and gasps and mm-hmmms and applause.  There were parts where the characters arguments seemed to switch topic without warning and in a way that didn't seem natural, but of course, in some ways that is natural even if that's not how play characters often operate.  The set was amazing, and when Sweet Thing finally got to sing and revealed a deep alto, it was amazing.  All of them sang beautifully, I guess I had simply expected the actress playing Nina to be amazing.
Overall I enjoyed it and was glad to have the chance to see it.