Fort Worth — On Sept. 15, 1963, the African-American 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, was bombed in an act of white supremacist terrorism, resulting in dozens of injuries and the deaths of four young black girls.
Also on Sept. 15, 1963, the incomparable Nina Simone began to forge a new public identity—one that would cement her into the annals of history as one of the most prolific and outspoken voices of the American Civil Rights Movement.
Christina Ham’s musical Nina Simone: Four Woman brings this metamorphosis into stark reality through the interwoven stories of four women, propelled forward by music from Simone’s career, gospel songs, traditional hymns, and even standard showtunes. Jubilee Theatre’s production of this piece, directed by Regina Washington, leaves much to be desired in terms of acting prowess from its players, however, the most important aspect—the music and its message—is delivered firmly by this cast and crew.
The show is prefaced wonderfully with a sort of lounge performance as patrons trickle into the theater. Denise Baker, who, later completely transforms to play one of the show’s four primary characters, beckons audience members inside with powerhouse vocals, singing jazzy, upbeat standards from the American Songbook, accompanied by a versatile and talented three-piece band consisting of Emanuel Smith on piano, Joseph Love, Jr. on upright bass, and Dana Shepherd on drums. Once the show begins, they accompany from off stage, but for now they are fun and energetic to watch as Baker transports the audience back to the ‘60s.
Nina Simone is then introduced as the night’s headliner, and Ardina Lockhart enters the stage with a lovely rendition of the Gershwin’s “I Loves You, Porgy” from Porgy and Bess. No one can ever replicate the tone and timbre of Simone’s unique voice, but Lockhart certainly does well to bring her own fitting vocal style to the character—polished and focused at its core, but vulnerable and unapologetically soulful around the edges. As Simone, Lockhart captures the singer’s intensity and rage through her musical interpretations. For example, she is pointed and introspective in “Brown Baby,” while wild and evocative in the popular “Sinnerman.” She is a decent enough actress for the space, but what she may lack in that regard, she more than makes up for as a thoughtful musician and vocalist.
The narrative unfolds inside the rubble and remains of the 16th Street Baptist Church immediately following the bombing. Set designer Bob Lavallee’s vision is effective in the limited space, with a collage of arresting real-life images from the violent era, and more specifically from the deadly bombing itself, forming the backdrop. Lighting designer Nikki DeShea Smith and sound designer Bear Hamilton join forces to convey the chaos and commotion ensuing outside of the church, which provides an ever constant sense of immediacy throughout the show.
Aunt Sarah is the second to enter the church after Simone. Portrayed by Genine Ware, she is humble, sturdy, old-fashioned, and god-fearing. Ware’s delivery is a bit thin at times, but she punctuates her character with moments of wry wit and wisdom that is redeeming, and her vocals are appropriately deep and weathered.
The sweet and sensitive Saphronia, a young, battle-scarred activist who happens to be “high yellow” is played by Alexis Zollicoffer. In both music and dialogue, she leaves the palate wanting so much more. At times, she is difficult to hear, and at others she is difficult to understand. Though her character comes through during poignant monologues—particularly as she defends her light skin and long hair against the beratement of her darker-skinned counterparts—the dynamic she provides her castmates in other moments tends to damper the energy of the show. However, she serves as an important nod to the destructiveness of colorism within an already disenfranchised minority group.
The last character to join the stage is Baker, portraying the feisty and misunderstood Sweet Thing. A brooding social outcast, she is threatening on the exterior, with a clear inner vulnerability that speaks volumes to the issues of class struggle within the African-American community that have persisted for decades. Baker is a force on stage, teeming with an acute emotional propinquity with, at once, defiance and a yearning to be loved. One could be forgiven for not even recognizing her as our lounge singer that opened the show, that is, until she finally opens her mouth to sing again. Her voice is flexible and large while attentive to the sweet little moments that allow her to be just the right amount of seductive.
This show moves at an awkward pace, starting and stopping with abrupt transitions all hinging on Simone’s ever-developing composition of a new radical song for the Civil Rights Movement—her whole reason for visiting the wreckage in the first place. However, when it is all said and done, somehow it works, bringing awareness to issues ranging from the diminished role of black women in the movement to the debate over radicalism versus nonviolent protest. Washington’s direction seems to embrace this aspect of Ham’s piece, especially when Lockhart finally delivers the pressing battle cry “Mississippi Goddam” towards the end of the show. It all comes full circle, and the rightly due homage is paid to the little lives lost in the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church—Addie Mae Collins, 14, Denise McNair, 11, Carole Robertson, 14, and Cynthia Wesley, 14.
The show appropriately finishes on a collaborative rendition of Simone’s “Four Women,” the main inspiration for the script. It’s a fitting finale for a show that is well-worth the experience if naught for the outstanding music and invigorating historical message.