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‘Four Women’ explores inspiration behind Nina Simone’s activism
ATC production at Queens University
Published Thursday, January 10, 2019 11:17 am
by Ashley Mahoney | The Charlotte Post

"Nina Simone: Four Women" director Chanel Blanchett.

Nina Simone’s musical journey stared as Eunice Kathleen Waymon.

Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte presents Christina Ham’s “Nina Simone: Four Women” Jan. 24-Feb. 16 at Queens University of Charlotte’s Hadley Theater, 2132 Radcliffe Ave. Director Chanel Blanchett noted that with the exception of avid fans or those who watched the Netflix documentary “What Happened, Miss Simone?” few will know Simone’s given name. However, pointing out the Tryon, North Carolina native’s birth name is addressed in the play.

“We have a whole conversation about names and identities,” Blanchett said on The Creatives podcast produced by The Post. “I am hoping people will see a different side of Nina Simone, in the same way they might not have known her birth name.”

“Four Women” takes place in September of 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama. It explores Simone’s commercial success, but feels called to use her musical platform for activism rather than strictly entertainment.

“The 16th Street [Baptist Church] bombing in Birmingham really sparked her to once again try to make a shift into a different version of Nina Simone, so away from a singer of jazz standards, and away from someone who is known mainly for things like, ‘I Loves You Porgy,’ into someone who feels like she can finally say what she wants to say, and be as revolutionary as she wants to be,” Blanchett said.

Four girls died in the Sept. 15, 1963 Birmingham bombing. Ham’s play utilizes that context as well as Simone’s song “Four Women” as the backbone of the production. The song itself explores four stereotypes about black women: Aunt Sarah characterizes the caretaker; Sephronia is a product of a white man raping a black woman; Sweet Thing is relatively loose and Peaches is the activist. Simone replaces Peaches in the production.

“This tragedy really inspires her to write what will become her song ‘Mississippi Goddam,’” Blanchett said.  “In this play she is in that transition process of really defining and accepting how she wants to move forward, and coming to grips and accepting the consequences in the shifts in her audience.”

Destiny Stone brings Simone to life. Her senior college thesis focused on the singer.

“She did an entire graduation project on it, and was asked to play a lot of Nina Simone’s hits at the dedication of her childhood home as a landmark in Tryon, North Carolina,” Blanchett said. “She really just blew me away when she came in with her power and her passion. When we called her back, she read for me, and she was very nice and polite. Then she said, ‘can I play a little something for you?’ She sat down at old piano in the corner of the rehearsal space, and really played the heck out of ‘Mississippi Goddam.’ Me and the stage manager looked at each other and nodded, ‘that’s her.’”

Erica Truesdale portrays Aunt Sarah, accompanied by Krystal Gardner playing Sephronia and Arlethia Friday as Sweet Thing.

“When I tell you that they are dynamic, that is an understatement,” Blanchett said. “We have really been able to have open, honest conversations as a cast, where the women not only take their roles really seriously, looking into how these women in their time period might have felt about their jobs, their skin color, their relationships with women of different statuses, but these women have already been really vulnerable and open about how their own life experiences have informed and can inform what they are doing in this show. They are so willing to not only talk with an openness, but explore with an openness.”

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