NINA SIMONE: FOUR WOMEN - Berkshire Theatre Group
If you expect Berkshire Theatre Group’s “Nina Simone: Four Women” to be a bio-musical that embraces the versatile musical canon of the legendary singer’s equally versatile talent, forget it. Instead, this 90 minute, intermission-less production, presents a specific view of Simone’s advocacy for Black activism in the 1960s, interspersed with a dozen musical numbers.
This ambitious interpretation by playwright Christina Ham imagines Simone at piano composing her passionate, angry ballad about racism, “Mississippi Goddam”, in the wake of the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1963 that left four young Black girls dead. Simone is visited by three adult Black women, who as much represent the inner “selves” (and internal struggles) of Simone as they do a composite of Black women’s history. There is Aunt Sarah (played by Darlesia Cearcy), the traditional “Negro”, slave descendent, and housemaid who’s played it safe to survive. Then there’s Sephronia (Sasha Hutchings), a young activist, who’s been beaten by police in protests who’s “high yellow” (not “black enough”), and Sweet Young Thing (Najah Hetsberger), a sassy, sometimes-hooker whose idea of happiness doesn’t involve political activism.
To zero-in on this slice of Simone’s life is the playwright’s prerogative but is the treatment teffectively dramatized? The debate that ensues among the four women is not only repetitive but also oversupplied with so many issues - timely and unfortunately still relevant as they are - it’s muddled. In a word, the play is talky: it’s sometimes like sitting in a graduate seminar on feminist intra-racial politics. (The show’s program, available online, comes with a 4-page glossary with notes on 28 historical and cultural items, so do your homework. In fact, if you don’t know the whole arc of Simone’s life and career, it might be good to Wikipedia her so you can contextualize “Four Women.”)
The dozen musical numbers are curated from Simone’s gospel repertoire and traditional spirituals (and eschew Simone’s jazz and pop ). The musical highpoint comes unfortunately earlier in the show than later: a rousing ensemble of “Sinnerman”. The two-piece band - piano and drums - and its arrangements sound clunky at times, more fitting the cheap Atlantic City jazz clubs where Simone got started (which gets only a passing reference here) rather than the spiritual aspirations of Ham’s book. The sound ratio between band and vocals is often inadequately calibrated.
All the voices of the quartet of performers are strong, the distinctively powerful belonging to Ms. Cearcy, who plays Aunt Sarah. Her voice soars above the other three, suggesting that she could have been cast in the lead role. But it doesn’t matter because “Four Women” regrettably isn’t really about Simone’s music and talent all that much.