After the Ku Klux Klan bombed a baptist church in 1963 killing four girls, Nina Simone wrote “Mississippi Goddam,” a forceful, angry diatribe that laid bare her raw feelings about the bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, and the murder of Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi.
Alabama’s gotten me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my rest
And everybody knows about Mississippi goddam
That song is included in Arena Stage’s production of Nina Simone: Four Women, which finds Simone and three other women gathering in the church following the bombing. At first glance, these women seem to have come together for protection and comfort in the wake of a violent attack. But there is much more going on.
Toni L. Martin (Sephronia), Harriett D. Foy (Nina Simone), Felicia Curry (Sweet Thing) and Theresa Cunningham(Aunt Sarah)
Simone’s song lyrics for “Four Women” employ stereotypes, women who are defined not only by their socio-economic standing, but also by their skin color. This play with music, written by Christina Ham, explores the struggles inside and outside of the black community during the 1960s Civil Rights movement, especially among black women who were trying to figure out a path forward in an extremely chaotic political environment. While racial discrimination was experienced by all the women depicted in the play, sometimes those slights came from, not white people, but from other blacks.
Set design by Timothy MacKabee consists of a damaged stained glass window that hangs precariously over simple wooden benches. Even before we hear the women speak, their clothing defines their place in society. (Costume design: Kara Harmon) As Nina Simone, Harriett D. Foy, in a resplendent black dress and high heels, carries herself with all the strength and determination that the singer displayed during her career. Foy never wavers in her focus – to right the wrongs that are pushing down and, in some cases, killing blacks.
Ham’s play, directed by Timothy Douglas, gives each woman an opportunity to tell her back story. Aunt Sarah (Theresa Cunningham) makes no apologies for working as a domestic, evident from her plain uniform and sensible shoes. She also doesn’t shy away from identifying herself as black. Cunningham is a standout in the role, whether singing the gospel hymn, “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” or delivering many of the one-liners that provide much-needed comic relief.
Sephronia (Toni L. Martin), might seem to be at the top of the food chain with her lighter skin. But when she reveals that her black mother was raped by her white father, the others understand that she, too, has paid a price. As the woman with “yellow skin,” Martin displays both intelligence and vulnerability, bringing us into her attempts to fit in within the black community while not making herself a target.
As Sweet Thing, Felicia Curry plays defense, knowing beforehand that what she does for a living as a prostitute, would bring immediate condemnation from the other women. But even drawing a knife doesn’t prompt Simone to back down. We soon see that Sweet Thing, with her much-worn fur coat, is all bark and no bite, only what she needs to do to protect herself in a hostile world.
Foy delivers two of Simone’s best known songs, “To Be Gifted Young and Black,” and, of course, “Mississippi Goddam,” with a passion that would have impressed the songstress herself. What probably wouldn’t impress Simone is that her songs still resonate to such a high degree in our current political climate, making Arena’s production a must-see in the nation’s capital.
Read the interview with Theresa Cunningham
Photos by C. Stanley Photography
Top photo: Toni L. Martin (Sephronia), Harriett D. Foy (Nina Simone) and Felicia Curry
Nina Simone: Four Women
1011 Sixth Street, SW
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