In a tribute to music icon Nina Simone, playwright Christina Ham is set to open “Nina Simone: Four Women” on Nov. 10 at the Arena Stage in Southwest D.C.
The musical play, directed by Timothy Douglas, is based on the turning point in Simone’s career when she transitioned from an entertainer to a civil rights activist after four Black girls were killed in 1963 in a racially-motivated attack at a church in Birmingham, Ala.
“The bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church came at a cataclysmic time not only in the fight for civil rights, but also in Ms. Simone’s battle to figure out who she was going to be as an artist,” Ham said in a news release.
The play is set after the explosion at the 16th Street Baptist Church when Simone is composing her original song “Mississippi Goddam” in response to racial injustices in the South.
The church bombing was the third in Birmingham within 11 days after a federal mandate ordered Alabama schools to integrate, according to History.com. The church had been a meeting place for Black leaders like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Born in 1933 in Tyron, N.C., the High Priestess of Soul, as she was known, recorded several songs throughout her career as part of the Civil Rights Movement, such as “Strange Fruit,” “Four Women” and “Young, Gifted and Black.” Simone died on April 21, 2003 at the age of 70. She suffered from breast cancer.
The show’s cast includes award-winning actress and University of Maryland graduate Felicia Curry, Broadway actress and Howard University graduate Harriett D. Foy, Arena Stage first-timers Theresa Cunningham, Darius Smith and Toni L. Martin.
Foy, who plays Simone, told the AFRO Oct. 27 that there is camaraderie amongst her castmates, “My cast is great and we formed a sisterhood. We about to go in on y’all!” she joked.
The play addresses the issues of race, colorism and self-worth, as Simone visits the church to find inspiration for her music, in honor of the four young victims, according to Foy.
“We deal with the fact that you can look into the mirror and not feel you are pretty,” Foy said, explaining how society can judge people based on their skin tone.
Foy said she can relate to Simone and her struggle with wanting to feel accepted and appreciated, “Our lives have many parallels as a artist and as a brown woman, how you have to make so many sacrifices.” She said being an artist can be lonely and the business doesn’t allow time for distractions.
Foy said she hopes the play, which she describes as 90 minutes of a “whirlwind of emotions” will encourage viewers to love one another and to get involved.
“We should honor this history, this legacy that has been given to us by Ms. Simone, this important work of trying to steer the journey of our race,” Foy said. “This woman persevered even when it was so much turmoil. Her music transcends time.”
Nina Simone is a 2018 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominee. Inductees will be announced in December and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 2018 ceremony is scheduled to be held in Cleveland on April 14, 2018.
“Nina Simone: Four Women” is scheduled to run through Dec. 24.