By Karla Sorenson
At the confluence of Black History Month and Women’s History Month, Merrimack Repertory Theatre delivers a powerful exposé of racism and sexism in America through the eyes – and voices – of four very different black women. It’s a unique rendering by Christina Ham. Both a full-fledged play and a musical, 𝘕𝘪𝘯𝘦 𝘚𝘪𝘮𝘰𝘯𝘦: 𝘍𝘰𝘶𝘳 𝘞𝘰𝘮𝘦𝘯 demonstrates music’s ability not just to entertain, but to heal and motivate, a political tool more effective than a bullhorn – or a gun.
Directed by Kenneth L. Roberson and loosely based on Simone’s song “Four Women,” the play mirrors the artist’s real-life transformation from jazz pianist to activist in the aftermath of the 1963 bombing of the 16th Baptist church in Birmingham that claimed the lives of four girls. It’s a transformation that is bittersweet for, she says, “I gave up who I was to become who I am.”
The play opens with Simone – representing the angry and defiant Peaches in the original song – amid the rubble of the church, struggling to write a protest tune, one that would be “like throwing ten bullets back at them.” Their world shaken to its core, the other women enter the church one by one – a pilgrimage of sorts – and each responds uniquely to this unforgivable assault on the African American community, young women, and the sanctity of a church, as well as to the day-to-day ignominies they encounter. The brilliant set by Christopher Rhoton, with its soaring and partly-shattered stained glass, lends an otherworldly tone to the play. Are these four women indicative of who the murdered girls might have become? A child’s shoe stained with blood becomes a symbol of all that has been lost.
The question of identity looms large in 𝘕𝘪𝘯𝘦 𝘚𝘪𝘮𝘰𝘯𝘦: 𝘍𝘰𝘶𝘳 𝘞𝘰𝘮𝘦𝘯. While the women in Simone’s original song are purposely archetypes, the women in Lam’s play are complex, defying the destiny of “mule of the world.” Though loud and proud, they still must contend with the low expectations that suppress and diminish their talents. The women themselves struggle to overcome their own prejudices and narrow-mindedness. Aunt Sarah, unapologetically “black” and “strong” and played by the inestimable Deanna Reed-Foster, feels the burden of providing food for “twenty people,” while being ridiculed as a “Jemima.” Sephronia – “lighter than a paper bag” – is “between two worlds.” Actor Ariel Richardson convincingly relays the sting Sephronia feels when “my own people turn against me.” The final woman to arrive is Sweet Thing, played by Alanna Lovely. Enticing, with desirable “fine” hair and “tan” skin, she is alternately self-destructive and menacing; everything in her life has been reduced to a commodity. She alone refuses to be named, stating “My real name is my business.”
The women’s varied histories lead to different paths as they seek answers about the world and themselves. Should we “go slow” and maintain hard-won rights – or rally for revolution? Is violence an acceptable option when one’s very life is at stake? Do you straighten “woolly hair” or go natural? But despite the differences in the women’s experiences, prejudice is the great leveler, whether it’s sexism in the civil rights community or racism in the women’s movement. Angry at women being segregated during King’s march on Washington, Nina warns of the dangers of accepting a lesser role. “If you aren’t in the spotlight—you’re in the dark.”
This is a brutally honest play. The women fling barbed insults at each other, as colorism and classism is in full display. “High yellow.” “Good hair and green eyes.” The hierarchy of feminine beauty is another factor in their oppression, one that seems to defy all cultures. So how do they find their unity, their true voices? Well, through song of course. On stage, Dionne Addai, in an achingly candid portrayal of Simone, holds forth like a fire and brimstone preacher. No longer willing to “do it slow,” she also rejects violence – for now, stating “I’ll slay folks with my lyrics and save my bullets for later.” The music in Four Women is as varied as the characters themselves. From gospel to folk to soaring anthem, the actors fill the theater with sound and hope – even in such turbulent times.
The theater world needs more plays like 𝘕𝘪𝘯𝘦 𝘚𝘪𝘮𝘰𝘯𝘦: 𝘍𝘰𝘶𝘳 𝘞𝘰𝘮𝘦𝘯. This is a work that sticks with you and makes you think and want to learn more, even as you are humming the tune of “Mississippi Goddam” all the way to your car.
At Merrimack Repertory Theatre until March 8.