Every artist makes art about the times in which he or she lives. The Oscar-nominated “The Favourite” and “Green Book” aren’t just historical voyages to 18th-century England or the Jim Crow South: They’re meant to prod us into thinking about the ways men still stereotype women and women compete with each other, or relations between blacks and whites in the America we inhabit today.
So it is with Christina Ham’s “Nina Simone: Four Women,” now running at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte. The play takes place immediately after the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. But the conversations about feminism, bigotry — both white-on-black and black-on-black — and the futures of black children might be happening today.
The four girls killed in that bombing would have been approaching 70 today. After the progress of the 1960s, they’d have seen a racially divided America sink slowly back into violence, mutual distrust and gradual resegregation of public schools. Ham sets us down at the beginning of that 56-year arc and, when we leave 90 minutes later, has us thinking about the place we’re in now.
We first see Simone (played with fierce authority by Destiny Stone) in the bombed church, listening to sounds of violence outside and composing the confrontational song “Mississippi Goddam.” Into the room at various times come Aunt Sarah (Erika Ja-Ki Truesdale), who relies on a strong back and equally strong faith in God to get her through two jobs cleaning houses; Sephronia (Krystal Gardner), whose lighter skin and erudition make the others suspicious and resentful; and Sweet Thing (Arlethia Friday), a prostitute having a baby fathered by Sephronia’s fiancé.
These archetypes come from Simone’s song “Four Women,” though the fourth one in the song is the embittered, dangerous Peaches. As Simone watches the others, she’s inspired to create the show’s title number. (There’s a lot of music, presented in interesting ways by director Chanel Blanchett and musical director Judith Porter, but this isn’t a musical.)
Ham works mostly with archetypes. Though she occasionally confounds expectations — Sephronia turns out to be a dedicated freedom marcher often beaten by the police — nobody but Simone becomes a fully rounded character; they don’t even have last names.
Simone, though, comes across in all her pride, rage, intelligence and arrogance — though, as Muhammad Ali noted, “It’s not bragging, if you can back it up.” We learn that she grew up in Tryon, N.C., dreaming in the 1940s of becoming a classical pianist; when racism forestalled her, she turned to popular music. (Shortly before she died in 2003, she told the BBC that Bach was her favorite composer.) As we see her in 1963, she’s a 30-year-old club-cabaret mainstay who has already tired of that circuit and wants to use her talents to make more of an impact.
Ham crams a lot of ideas into the dialogue, and some transitions seem rushed: Sweet Thing pulls a knife on Sephronia more than once but embraces her in sisterhood half an hour later. I was reminded of Katori Hall’s “The Mountaintop,” where Martin Luther King and a hotel maid have a 90-minute conversation on similar topics before we realize she exists only for him.
I wondered if Sarah, Sephronia and Sweet Thing existed only in Simone’s mind, as inspirations for one of her saddest and angriest songs. If so, she made them immortal.
‘Nina Simone: Four Women’
Where: Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, 2132 Radcliffe Ave.
Tickets: $30-$50, with discounts for students, teachers and military.
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission.
Details: 704-342-2251; www.atcharlotte.org.