Felicia Curry is Transcendent in “Nina Simone: Four Women”!
There is an extraordinary performance by Felicia Curry playing the title character of “Nina Simone: Four Women” currently being produced by the Berkshire Theatre Group on the Unicorn Stage in Stockbridge, MA. Like the mythical creature the theater is named after, it is almost as rare to find such an overwhelmingly powerful, convincing, moving portrayal. From her first notes singing “I Loves You Porgy,” you can close your eyes and hear Nina Simone. At times, when she starts a song like “Mississippi Goddam” which provides one of the climaxes to the show, you read that right, you are shocked by how close it comes to a recording you’ve heard, and yet the performance is no mere mimicry.
Imagine the gift to be able to conjure up and convince us you are this giant of 20th Century Jazz and social activism at this time and portray her in 1963 when she was moving from cocktail singer to progressive politics just when we are asking ourselves where our art should go next. As the fabulous director and choreographer of this piece Gerry McIntyre states “At a time when people are feeling the need to do something in our hurting world but don’t know how to start, this production is an incredible reminder that you just need to take the first step. Or write the first note. ‘Nina Simone: Four Women’ meditates on Nina Simone’s transition from a singer to an activist. It also deals with issues of colorism among black women that aren’t typically dealt with.” As Nina Simone says in the play patrons should be careful “if they are listening to my music sipping on a martini unless they’re prepared to choke on their olive.”
Ms. Curry gives us far more than a celebrity impression in Christina Ham’s play. She presents Nina in several of her embodiments from a garrulous interview subject to prideful diva, “If they’re going to compare me with someone, let it be Maria Callas, we are both divas from lights up to lights down”) to your favorite social history lecturer who opened your eyes wide, “words got power that’s what I’m hoping on.” Her physical life has her body powerfully coiled with pointing fingers making dozens of pronouncements. Her speech is slightly formal, overly emphatic and used like a conductor uses a symphony from a low purr to sharpest of threats. Simone’s father was a musician and her mother was a minister. She is working with messianic zeal on a new song that will be her baptism into confrontational music, “I’ll slay folks with my lyrics and save my bullets for later.” It is a goosebump raising, rafter shaking, galvanizing performance that had the audience hooting, hollering and stamping their feet, shouting their gratitude for witnessing such a dedicated and brilliant artist tear into a part worthy of her, rise to the occasion and then some and shake every ounce of life out of it.
The play is called “Nina Simone: Four Women” and the other three terrific performers are Darlesia Cearcy as Aunt Sarah, Sasha Hutchings as Sephronia, and Najah Hetsberger as Sweet Thing. They serve multiple purposes making up the four women of the title. They will get into dialectic debates with Nina over colorism among Black women representing the working poor, the mulatto who passes, and the hardened street woman respectively. Beyond the autobiographical and philosophical debate on how to bring about change, there are twelve songs throughout the evening that the women also participate in. Ms. Cearcy has a powerful church voice and all three are more than qualified to play on Ms. Curry’s stage and give as good as they get. It is something to see Nina step up to Ms. Hetsberger’s Sweet Thing and overpower her by sheer force of presence.
And then there is “Sinnerman.” I have a hard time remembering being so rocked, rolled and riveted by a musical number in a theater. I’m sure there are a few but “Sinnerman” swept away all remembrances. It comes halfway through the show, starts up like a freight train, doesn’t let up and blows the doors off the barn. By the time the cast of four were clapping along in choreographed syncopation to the fierce musicianship of pianist and Music Director Dante Harrell and drummer Diego Mongue, the hair on the back of my neck was standing up and I felt a shiver go down my spine. The song’s end was met with the evening’s longest, lustiest applause which would have been a standing ovation in the middle of the show if the audience felt safer getting to its feet and back down in the steeply raked, darkened Unicorn. An indelible theater moment.
The stage set is the bombed-out 16th Street Baptist Church where the four little girls were killed by 19 sticks of dynamite in 1963. There’s a cross on its side, ripped bible on the floor, overturned altar chairs and damaged stained-glass window hanging from the ceiling as Nina labors over her song at a grand piano in Randall Powers’ powerful scenic design. Costumes are beautiful, period-appropriate, and have incredibly rich, different textures for each character. Lighting design by Matthew E. Adelson and Sound by Kaique DeSouza bring the city at war to the stage as you are frequently reminded of the protests and police actions outside with guns going off, explosions and fires reflected offstage.
The song Nina has been working on is “Four Women” and it is dedicated to the four girls killed in Birmingham: Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair, as the civil rights activist Medgar Evers who was also assassinated in 1963. The four women in the play are each represented in the song that Simone composed. The play is filled with quotes and aphorisms that are more than spoken but fully embodied by the four women. As unrealistic as the dialogue may have been, full of pronouncements, you never doubted the lived truth of these characters. All were fully committed and fighting for their lives with the occasionally stilted exchanges but the play entered the heavens when the music played and oh, that “Sinnerman!”