Nina Simone was a singer, composer and musician whose gifts extended across all genres: classical, folk, blues, gospel, jazz and pop. After the murder of Medgar Evers and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, in which four young girls were killed, she became a fervent activist for civil rights.
Unlike the peaceful approach of Dr. Martin Luther King, she advocated a more radical attempt to changing black lives. Beginning with Mississippi Goddam, her music started to contain more protest anthems, beloved by many — except the white supremacists. Promotional copies of the song were smashed by a Carolina radio station and returned to her label, Philips.
In Christina Ham’s Nina Simone: Four Women, making its regional debut at the Public Theater of San Antonio, we meet the artist in a tragically appropriate setting — the burnt-out rubble of the 16th Street church. Surprisingly (or perhaps not), the only piece of furniture left intact is a piano, so she sits down to compose Mississippi Goddam. As she writes, other women arrive — like Scrooge’s ghosts — to join in her story.
We meet Sarah, a maid who works herself to the bone to support her family. Then Sephronia arrives. Her mixed race gives her light skin and certain privilege, but she fights as hard for civil right as Simone does. Finally, the dangerously tough Sweet Thing comes in. Surviving on the mean streets, she has no patience for the other women— particularly Sephronia. Can they all merge together to achieve the same goal?
The Public’s production is superlative. Debra Elana provides a commanding presence as the title character. Danielle King affords an earnest performance as the hard-working Sarah. Stephanie D. Jones walks the fine line between two worlds as the “yellow” Sephronia. And the always engaging Rebekah Williams is an appreciatively mean Sweet Thing. Or should it be Thang? They all have beautiful singing voices, and their four-part harmonies are glorious.
The piece is excellently directed by Ann James, with Kimberlyn Montford providing solid musical support. The set design by James V. Thomas (with support by Bekka Broyles) is heartbreakingly evocative and well-lit by Carlos R. Nine. The sound design by Claudia Jenkins Martinez and costumes by Krystal Uchem are also spot-on. Finishing off the richness of the production is the makeup work of Sabrina Lopez.
Nina Simone: Four Women plays Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. through Feb. 12 at the Public Theater of San Antonio, 800 W. Ashby Place. Tickets can be obtained online.
Feature photo: Debra Elana plays Nina Simone (courtesy The Public Theater of San Antonio).