There’s no telling how the civil rights movement would have progressed without the sacrifices of so many individual activists. And there’s no telling what might not have happened were it not for artists like Nina Simone, who in 1963 turned her attention from a career as a singer and pianist to that of a creator of protest songs meant to advance and call attention to the movement.
Simone went from performing innocuous pop songs and playing jazz, pop and classical piano to writing and singing scorching protest songs like “Mississippi Goddam” she said were meant to cut listeners like a razor. She always insisted that far more than merely being a run-of-the-mill song, the piece should be considered an anthem.
That she did so to her own detriment makes her story all the more compelling.
Playwright Christina Ham took up Simone’s story in the 2016 play “Nina Simone: Four Women.” The play has never been produced in Orange County – but South Coast Repertory has remedied that fact with its current production.
Local theater audiences will get a chance to delve into Simone’s often tortured life – a path that was already rocky before her decision to commit herself to helping the cause of civil rights.
Not only that, but SCR’s version of the play is an all-new iteration, making its production, for all intents and purposes, a world premiere.
Tragedies That Rocked Simone’s World
Two crucial events occurred in 1963 that literally changed the course of Simone’s life and caused her to change direction.
On June 12, civil rights leader Medgar Evers was murdered. Three months later, and even more devastating to Simone, the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, was bombed, killing four young black girls, partly blinding a fifth and injuring at least 20 more.
Simone sat up and took notice, then channeled her outrage into the song “Mississipi Goddam,” reputedly written in an hour.
At the time, the singer said the song was “like throwing 10 bullets back at” those who perpetrated the violence against Blacks. She later referred to it as her “first civil rights song,” saying that it came to her “in a rush of fury, hatred and determination.”
A new career was born almost overnight, and the pushback was instant, and fierce. The song was boycotted throughout the South, and as Simone began creating only recordings and concert performances carrying the banner of the civil rights movement, her commercial success began to deteriorate.
She was speaking up, and speaking out, and it was costing her.
Ham Revisits the Bombing
“Nina Simone: Four Women” isn’t the first time Ham has addressed the tragic 1963 bombing and made it the focus of a play. That honor goes to her 2009 play “Four Little Girls, Birmingham, 1963.”
Ham is perhaps best known to the public through her work in television. She was supervising producer of “Westworld,” co-producer on “Sweet Tooth,” and spent two seasons as a staff writer on “The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.”
At heart, though, Ham considers herself a playwright, her theater works having been produced at, among other notable venues, the Kennedy Center, Center Theatre Group, Guthrie Theater, Goodman Theatre, the Market Theatre in South Africa and the Tokyo International Arts Festival.
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In 2009, SteppingStone Theater in St. Paul, Minnesota, commissioned her to write a play about the four Black girls (three 14-year-olds and an 11-year-old) who were killed in the bombing. “Four Little Girls, Birmingham, 1963” premiered at SteppingStone in February 2011, and got a widely publicized 2013 performance at the Kennedy Center timed to commemorate the bombing’s 50th anniversary.
Plays by Christina Ham
“A Wives’ Tale”
“Crash Test Dummies”
“Cul De Sac”
“Hour of Lead”
“Nina Simone: Four Women”
“West of Central”
“Grow Up Together”
THEATER FOR YOUNG AUDIENCES
“A Lion’s Tale”
“Four Little Girls”
“Henry’s Freedom Box”
“Ruby: The Story of Ruby Bridges”
“Watsons Go to Birmingham.”
You can learn more about Ham at ChristinaHam.com
Ham’s personal connection with the 16th Street Baptist Church informed her work on both “Four Little Girls” and “Nina Simone.” Though born and raised in Los Angeles, Ham’s mother and aunt grew up in Birmingham, and as little girls they attended and were members of the church’s congregation.
“When (Ham’s mom and aunt) were little kids, they grew up seeing everyone from Paul Robeson to Eleanor Roosevelt,” Ham said. “It was the place to be, so, for obvious reasons, it was significant when it was bombed.” Her research for the earlier play, she said, consisted largely of interviewing her mother.
From ‘Girls’ to Nina Simone
Ham said that in 2015, Richard Cook, artistic director of the St. Paul, Minnesota-based Park Square Theater, and actor Regina Marie Williams approached her about doing a play about Nina Simone.
Williams, Ham relates, “was already doing a cabaret show about Nina in northern Minnesota, but she wanted more of a significant play” about Simone. “She knew she needed a writer, had already been in some of my plays, and knew my writing style.”
Knowing Ham had previously visited the subject of the bombing as material for the stage cemented the decision, while Ham’s family connection with the church and her previous research “made it easier for me to write about (the bombing) from a more personal point of view.”
Ham was commissioned in July 2015 to write the new play, which premiered at Park Square in March 2016, directed by Faye M. Price and starring Williams as Simone.
Whereas the earlier play focused on the bombing’s victims and the impact it had on the community and the nation, the new play looked at the tragedy’s impact on Simone.
History tells us she was deeply troubled by the bombing and its ramifications. The bombing, by all accounts, literally changed the course of her life.
Ham relates how the performer later referred to two 1963 tragedies – Evers’ murder and the church bombing – as “her Paul on the road to Damascus moment.”
“She could no longer do business as usual and be on the sidelines of the civil rights movement,” Ham said. “She would have to get in there and take action.”
“I decided the idea of the play would be to look at her shift and how ‘Mississippi Goddam’ (the first of Simone’s protest songs) got her to that place where she had shifted her career,” Ham said. The play “now digs deeper into that process” and how this professional and personal transformation derailed her career.
Ham said Simone “later believed the song (‘Mississippi Goddam’) wrecked her career. After a few attempts to write her own songs, she went back to covers of others’ songs.” As Ham relates, during this period, Simone lived and worked “in exile in France, angry and bitter.”
SCR Overhauls the Play from Top to Bottom
Essentially an elongated one-act, “Nina Simone: Four Women” takes us right up to the point where Simone completes “Mississippi Goddam,” stopping short of depicting how the song and Simone’s choices affected her life.
‘Nina Simone: Four Women’
When: Through Oct. 23
Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
Contact: 714-708-5500, scr.org
The show originally featured four of Simone’s songs: “Four Women,” “Go Limp,” and “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” and, of course, “Mississippi Goddam.”
“Go Limp” and “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” are gone, with Simone’s “Old Jim Crow” and “Sinnerman” in their place.
The show’s musical content also casts a wider net than the earlier, revue-like version, in that it includes traditional hymnal and gospel music and an original, “Shout Oh, Mary.” Ham wrote the latter song’s lyrics and its music was composed by Richard Baskin Jr., who’s not only a cast member of SCR’s production but is also its musical director, arranger and on-stage pianist.
But the adjustments to the show’s musical playlist were only a fraction of the changes made to the script.
Ham said “about 90% has been revised,” noting that “the skeleton is the same” but that considerable structural changes were made to clarify the points and issues Ham and director Logan Vaughn wished to make.
In May of this year, Ham and Vaughn put their heads together and set about dissecting the play, weighing its strengths and weaknesses, and changing it accordingly.
“What struck me in first reading it,” director Vaughn said, “was that the first version felt more centered on the music and read more like a musical revue.” She said the play also created the inaccurate impression that Simone was present at the church’s bombed ruins, when in fact the story unfolds at Simone’s home in Mount Vernon, New York.
“Ultimately,” Vaughn said, “we both knew we wanted to rebuild and reapproach the play with Nina at the center.”
Their conversations led directly to an intense overhaul of the script that took all summer. Vaughn said realizing their joint goals for the play “really did take us reworking it from the ground up” and the process was “truly the building of a new play.”
Vaughn said a completely new draft emerged early in the process, in less than two weeks. The rest of the summer saw a continuous flow of rewrites and the constant addition of new pages.
Interviewed for this article on Oct. 6, Vaughn reported that “new pages are coming in daily” and that the revision process, rewrites and new pages would continue even during the SCR run and beyond the production’s closing date.
“This is uniquely different from anything else I’ve done,” Vaughn said. “I’ve never had the experience of taking a play that has existed before in title and rebuilding it with the playwright.”
Ham and Vaughn report that the new version takes special care to examine and address the mental health issues Simone grappled with for years before receiving a diagnosis and treatment – issues Ham said Simone “had been dealing with that her whole life, not knowing what was wrong with her.”
At SCR, Chibuba Osuala fulfills the play’s title role, with Jennifer Leigh Warren, Arie Bianca Thompson and Meredith Noël as Sarah, Sephronia and Sweet Thing, respectively.
The three Black women characters, who come to life within Simone’s mind, are the literal embodiments of her jumbled thoughts and emotions, giving audiences a way to connect with Simone’s tortured existence.
A Painstaking, All-Consuming Process
If you can say the play’s subject wrestled with issues, so Ham and Vaughn have wrestled with getting her story to the stage in a way that connects with audiences.
Ham said “as the writer of the piece, it hasn’t been easy to navigate” the process of overhauling “Nina Simone” and preparing it for SCR’s audiences. “It’s been the hardest play I’ve ever written.”
Ham said it’s “very difficult to try to capture the passion one would have at a critical point in their career” and “as difficult to try to capture the creative process in a compelling way, because asking people how they create is like asking ‘how do you breathe?’”
The creative process, and the artist’s role in holding a mirror up to society, are at the heart of the play. Ham said “there’s a line where Nina says, ‘If more of us say the unspeakable when the horrific happens, it will become a shout instead of a whisper.’”
As the playwright relates, Simone never actually spoke that line; Ham wrote it to articulate and encapsulate one of the play’s most compelling, overarching themes: The act of responding to tragic events is crucial in any society’s progress, and that Simone proved that artists of every stripe have an obligation to do so.
“I think it’s important to look at how artists are doing that today, whether writing a song or play or movie – however they address it. We all have a responsibility to speak the unspeakable when something awful happens.”
Vaughn hopes SCR audiences will have “a transcendent experience through Nina’s very specific narrative, and that they themselves are able to feel seen and heard as well.”
Eric Marchese is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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