COHORT REPORT: ๐™‰๐™ž๐™ฃ๐™– ๐™Ž๐™ž๐™ข๐™ค๐™ฃ๐™š: ๐™๐™ค๐™ช๐™ง ๐™’๐™ค๐™ข๐™š๐™ฃ – ๐™’๐™๐™š๐™ง๐™š ๐™ฉ๐™๐™š ๐™ฅ๐™ค๐™ก๐™ž๐™ฉ๐™ž๐™˜๐™–๐™ก ๐™ž๐™จ ๐™ฅ๐™š๐™ง๐™จ๐™ค๐™ฃ๐™–๐™ก ๐™–๐™ฃ๐™™ ๐™ข๐™ช๐™จ๐™ž๐™˜๐™–๐™ก

By Karla Sorenson
MRT Cohort

At the confluence of Black History Month and Womenโ€™s History Month, Merrimack Repertory Theatre delivers a powerful exposรฉ of racism and sexism in America through the eyes โ€“ and voices โ€“ of four very different black women. Itโ€™s a unique rendering by Christina Ham. Both a full-fledged play and a musical, ๐˜•๐˜ช๐˜ฏ๐˜ฆ ๐˜š๐˜ช๐˜ฎ๐˜ฐ๐˜ฏ๐˜ฆ: ๐˜๐˜ฐ๐˜ถ๐˜ณ ๐˜ž๐˜ฐ๐˜ฎ๐˜ฆ๐˜ฏ demonstrates musicโ€™s ability not just to entertain, but to heal and motivate, a political tool more effective than a bullhorn โ€“ or a gun.

Directed by Kenneth L. Roberson and loosely based on Simoneโ€™s song โ€œFour Women,โ€ the play mirrors the artistโ€™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. Itโ€™s a transformation that is bittersweet for, she says, โ€œI gave up who I was to become who I am.โ€

The play opens with Simone โ€“ representing the angry and defiant Peaches in the original song โ€“ amid the rubble of the church, struggling to write a protest tune, one that would be โ€œlike throwing ten bullets back at them.โ€ Their world shaken to its core, the other women enter the church one by one โ€“ a pilgrimage of sorts โ€“ 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 childโ€™s shoe stained with blood becomes a symbol of all that has been lost.

The question of identity looms large in ๐˜•๐˜ช๐˜ฏ๐˜ฆ ๐˜š๐˜ช๐˜ฎ๐˜ฐ๐˜ฏ๐˜ฆ: ๐˜๐˜ฐ๐˜ถ๐˜ณ ๐˜ž๐˜ฐ๐˜ฎ๐˜ฆ๐˜ฏ. While the women in Simoneโ€™s original song are purposely archetypes, the women in Lamโ€™s play are complex, defying the destiny of โ€œmule of the world.โ€ 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 โ€œblackโ€ and โ€œstrongโ€ and played by the inestimable Deanna Reed-Foster, feels the burden of providing food for โ€œtwenty people,โ€ while being ridiculed as a โ€œJemima.โ€ Sephronia โ€“ โ€œlighter than a paper bagโ€ โ€“ is โ€œbetween two worlds.โ€ Actor Ariel Richardson convincingly relays the sting Sephronia feels when โ€œmy own people turn against me.โ€ The final woman to arrive is Sweet Thing, played by Alanna Lovely. Enticing, with desirable โ€œfineโ€ hair and โ€œtanโ€ 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 โ€œMy real name is my business.โ€

The womenโ€™s varied histories lead to different paths as they seek answers about the world and themselves. Should we โ€œgo slowโ€ and maintain hard-won rights โ€“ or rally for revolution? Is violence an acceptable option when oneโ€™s very life is at stake? Do you straighten โ€œwoolly hairโ€ or go natural? But despite the differences in the womenโ€™s experiences, prejudice is the great leveler, whether itโ€™s sexism in the civil rights community or racism in the womenโ€™s movement. Angry at women being segregated during Kingโ€™s march on Washington, Nina warns of the dangers of accepting a lesser role. โ€œIf you arenโ€™t in the spotlightโ€”youโ€™re in the dark.โ€

This is a brutally honest play. The women fling barbed insults at each other, as colorism and classism is in full display. โ€œHigh yellow.โ€ โ€œGood hair and green eyes.โ€ 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 โ€œdo it slow,โ€ she also rejects violence โ€“ for now, stating โ€œIโ€™ll slay folks with my lyrics and save my bullets for later.โ€ 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 โ€“ even in such turbulent times.

The theater world needs more plays like ๐˜•๐˜ช๐˜ฏ๐˜ฆ ๐˜š๐˜ช๐˜ฎ๐˜ฐ๐˜ฏ๐˜ฆ: ๐˜๐˜ฐ๐˜ถ๐˜ณ ๐˜ž๐˜ฐ๐˜ฎ๐˜ฆ๐˜ฏ. 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 โ€œMississippi Goddamโ€ all the way to your car.

At Merrimack Repertory Theatre until March 8.

MRT.ORG

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