“An artist’s responsibility is to reflect the times,” Nina Simone famously said, and in the aftermath of 1963’s 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, Simone responded to the tragedy with her most visceral anthems: the furious “Mississippi Goddam,” the majestic “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” and the ground-breaking “Four Women.”
Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte is running “Nina Simone: Four Women,” Jan. 24-Feb. 16. Written by Christina Ham, the play dramatizes the title song’s characters: Aunt Sarah (Erica Truesdale); Saphronia (Krystal Gardner); Sweet Thing (Arlethia Friday); and Destiny Stone as Nina Simone herself, wracking her brain in the bombed-out sanctuary trying to create music to articulate her hurricane of emotions. It’s very nearly an all-woman show, with director Chanel Blanchett, musical director Judith Porter, stage manager Kathryn Harding, and Carrie Cranford as the props and costume designer. Executive producer Chip Decker and Evan Kinsley, technical director, balance out the team.
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“It’s awesome to be able to bring such a black feminist play to the community to digest,” Gardner said. “As Charlotte becomes more diverse and we have more people moving in from different walks of life, to bring black women with sisterhood and fellowship to the stage and increase the diversity of the art scene is perfect timing.
“To be in an all-woman cast is impactful, and with a woman director and a woman stage manager, there’s all kinds of magic happening here.”
Blanchett agreed. “Charlotte should see this show because they need to. We can’t grow as a society on a national or even a neighborhood scale until we see in clear terms the experience of those different from us.”
The play is set inside the church, after the bombing, as protests and state-sanctioned police violence against the protesters rage outside. Inside, there’s an equivalent chaos – but here, it centers on colorism and class, as Simone and the archetypal characters connect and react to the layered and intersecting oppressions conspiring against black women in America. We see when their kinship is a source of strength – and when it becomes oppressive.
“It’s important to see the play to understand racism created colorism,” said Truesdale. “Growing up we experienced it, but we didn’t talk about it.”
“The play gives opportunity to have plain conversations about what it’s like to be a black woman, and the effects of racism and colorism,” Blanchett said. “Society wants to soften that message because it can be uncomfortable, but it takes a toll to not be honest about my own life experiences for the comfort of others. It’s uncompromising and raw and refreshing to be open and share the struggle.”
Blanchett came to Charlotte as a child from California, and grew up in the dance and theater worlds. Her first exposure to Nina Simone was spending summers with her grandparents in Philadelphia. Her grandfather was a big fan of the singer, and Blanchett recalls walking up the steps and hearing Simone’s voice flow through the rowhouse door.
“I didn’t know who she was at the time, but she was part of the soundtrack to my memories in South Philly,” she said. “I told my mom about getting this directorship and she reminded me. It brought those memories flooding back.”
Initially, she concentrated more on dance, until she came across Ntozake Shange’s “For Colored Girls.” Before that, she hadn’t had a concept of theater as a space for people of color, and it inspired her to find ways to make art connect to her life and the lives of those who may have felt similarly. “Art is not a mirror to reality but a hammer with which to smash it,” Blanchett said, referencing a quote from Bertolt Brecht.
“Nina Simone: Four Women” takes the literary and cultural stereotypes of the mammy (Sara), the jezebel (Sweet Thing), and tragic mulatto (Saphronia) and reveals full-rounded characters. They have details of those stereotypes, but are living, breathing women who struggle with flaws. “Because of that complexity, we can relate to them and because of their struggle they have strength,” Blanchett said.
Truesdale said the character of Sarah wasn’t hard to connect with. “So often as women, we’re told we have to put on a mask. We’re taught we can’t be angry, because if we’re angry we fit into a stereotype, but what do we do with these emotions?
“Sarah for me is the black woman unmasked, exploring her humanity beyond her roles as maid, mother or wife. She is faced with accepting the fullness of herself, despite what society or her mother may say — to just be.”
Gardner, who plays light-skinned activist Saphronia, mined her family life to relate to the character. “She’s complex and at the onset it’s not immediately apparent she has this turmoil and struggle inside her,” Gardner said. Talks with her husband, who is biracial, helped. “His mother’s from Germany and his father’s African-American and he’s from a small island off the coast of South Carolina. He looked nothing like his relatives and hearing him talk about growing up not feeling like he fit in helped me lay the groundwork for Saphronia’s character.”
Friday portrays Sweet Thing, a prostitute and the most in-your-face character regarding her sexuality. She’s also the strongest indictment of intra-racial class discrimination. “On the surface, you’d say Sweet Thing is wild, she’s rude, she’s crazy,” Friday said. “But the truth of the matter is she’s just as complex as every woman we know.”
Sweet Thing hates her similarly light-complected counterpart Saphronia with a passion, despite their sharing some of the same hurtful experiences. But she perceives in Saphronia the privilege she was denied.
“She has a line, ‘Ain’t nobody ever heard my cry’,” Friday said. “Isn’t that what we all need?”
Stone, the youngest actor at 21, recently graduated from Catawba College and based her senior thesis around Simone. The trained pianist learned about seven Simone songs and composed several of her own.
“I loved Nina because she sacrificed her career for the civil rights movement,” Stone said. And “to see someone who’s brown like me to make it to that level — representation really matters. Her nose and her lips curved out from her face. If she could do it, I can.”
Between breaks, the cast casually discusses the issues brought up in the script. It’s led to the cast and crew forming a close-knit bond, more like family than colleagues, they said. They’ve slept in each others’ homes, eaten together, and attempted something called Headwrap Sundays, where they wrapped their hair in African print scarves. Blanchett even brought one for stage manager Harding, who they’ve “adopted” into the family.
“It’s beautiful to be able to come to work and not have to compromise who you are, whether it’s the way you wear your hair or clothes, how we celebrate our curves, or the way that we speak. We understand the need to code switch but here we don’t have to,” Friday said. “We laugh, we cry, and if one of us is feeling a little less confident we pick each other up. In here we act exactly the way we act wherever we grew up. It’s like a family reunion, or wherever you feel at home — that’s how we feel together.”
The women, ranging in age from 21 to 47, have also seen some personal breakthroughs.
“Being a brown woman and dealing with colorism, I had an attitude that light-skinned women didn’t know and didn’t get it,” Stone said.
“Staying in my house?” Gardner interjected humorously.
“It used to break me down. But working with these ladies, I see they’re still black women. They still struggle. It’s really opened me. Thank you guys for helping me to come out of that,” Stone said.
“I’m going to hug you every time I see you,” Gardner replied.
The play feels like the right show at the right time. Charlotte learned hard lessons during the Keith Lamont Scott shooting, among them how different sectors of the same community can live in completely different worlds. Decker, the executive director and sound designer, was enthusiastic to bring it to the city.
“We always look for contemporary new pieces because we want to make today’s voices heard,” he said. “Unfortunately, this is one of those pieces that’s just relevant and until it’s not we will continue to seek out and produce these.”
Gardner summed it up through a line of Saphronia’s: “ ’If you leave here the same way you came, that’s a problem.’
“I firmly believe that after people come and take in everything that is ‘Nina Simone: Four Women,’ and we leave it all on the stage, they won’t leave the same.”
‘Nina Simone: Four Women’
Jan. 24-Feb. 16. Hadley Theater, 2132 Radcliffe Ave. Info: www.atcharlotte.org/nina-simone/
This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte. Sign up here for the free e-newsletter “Inside Charlotte Arts.”