It’s September 16, 1963, and Birmingham, Alabama is on the brink. Just a day before, the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed in an attack instigated by members of the KKK, killing four black girls and injuring several others. But as riots rage on the streets, another form of resistance is fomenting: Within the devastated church, musical icon Nina Simone (Dorretta Carter) is crafting songs that would mark her shift from artist to activist. One by one, three other women stumble in: Aunty/Sarah (Achan Malonda) has been worn down by a lifetime of oppression, pleading for non-violence and offended by Simone’s feisty and provocative nature; Sephronia (Kudra Owens) is an activist of mixed race who’s forced to endure contempt from her sisters for her light-skin privilege; and finally, there’s Sweet Thing (Shari Truth Krammer), a sex worker who uses her appearance to her advantage. These four archetypes of being black and female in America couldn’t be more different, but despite their clashing personalities they unite in song, emphasizing the power of music.
Based on Simone’s 1966 feminist and civil rights anthem, Christina Ham’s musical play Nina Simone: Four Women is an evocative reflection of a previous generation’s struggle for equality, brought to the stage by the Vienna Theatre Project and now showing at the Theater Drachengasse. Directed by Joanna Godwin-Seidl with additional music by Dave Moskin, Ham uses Simone’s (fictional) encounter to explore the plight of black women in American society from the civil rights era to the present, conjuring an eerie sense of introspection that was palpable in the audience, bringing in a standing ovation during the sold-out premiere.
We shall overcome
“Doing a play during a pandemic is a challenge to say the least,” director Joanna Godwin-Seidl told us. Considering the short time between getting government approval and the scheduled premiere, the difficulty in assembling four such able black actresses on short notice and the challenge of a socially distanced theater at half capacity, the production is nothing short of a miracle. The cast shines, executing Godwin-Seidl’s thoughtful direction to a “T,” aided by a minimal yet effective set design and costumes that underline the women’s personalities, from Simone’s sequined all-pink ensemble to Aunty’s no-nonsense button down dress and Sephronia’s preppy look. The least period appropriate is Sweet Thing’s ensemble – save for her fur coat, her sparkly top, stretchy jeans and high heel sandals look more early aughts than 1960s. However, it’s only a minor distraction.
Kudra Owens, who was brilliant in the Vienna Theatre Project’s production of The Mountaintop earlier this year, gives another high-spirited performance, while veteran R&B singer and actress Shari Truth Watson adds some comic relief, skillfully enlivening the latter part of the play. The biggest surprise, perhaps, comes at the hands of Achan Malonda, a Berlin-based singer and activist who portrays the Southern “black aunty” stereotype with dignity and humility. But it’s singer Dorretta Carter who bears the weight of the production, rising to the challenge of portraying a cultural icon with captivating presence and a velvety voice – leading her fellow cast members in some of Simone’s most famous songs like “Sinnerman,” “Mississippi Goddamn” and “Four Women,” she brings the house down.
Culturally, Nina Simone: Four Women couldn’t have come at a better time. In Malcolm X’s words, “The most disrespected person in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman.” Fifty-eight years later in the wake of the #BlackLivesMatter protests, these words still ring heartbreakingly true.
Sep 29 & Oct 1,2 & 3, 20:00, Theater Drachengasse
1., Fleischmarkt 22
Images: © Ines & Thomas Photography