Singing actor Regina Marie Williams, who earned stellar reviews for her recent star turn in “Sister Act” at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres, is commanding the light again. Williams delivers an exquisite performance in “Nina Simone: Four Women,” Christina Ham’s new play that premiered over the weekend at St Paul’s Park Square Theatre.
With her acting talent, she conveys the mystery and tremulousness of the legendary singer, inviting us into Simone’s agitated soul. And Williams’ vocals, often a cappella or with minimal accompaniment by music director Sanford Moore, helps to make the evening, and the play, captivating.
“Four Women,” named for a Simone song in which she sketches some of the archetypal roles that black women occupy in the popular imagination (including mammy, hussy and prostitute), is imbued with beauty and pain. Ham’s writing is crisp and poetic. Director Faye Price’s staging is sharp and engaging on Lance Brockman’s church-pew set. And the three other women who surround Williams deliver superb performances in a play that is really a Greek-style tragedy.
“Four Women” is set not in an ancient temple but in the bombed-out ruins of a black church in the turbulent 1960s. On Sept. 15, 1963, members of the Ku Klux Klan dynamited the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., killing four little girls and wounding many others. That act of domestic terror helped galvanize the civil rights movement and also inspired Simone to become more of an activist.
In Ham’s re-imagining, Simone has stolen into the ruins of the church the day after the tragedy. Wearing a long black dress and accompanied by her brother (Moore) on piano, she draws inspiration from the shards and bloodstains to compose something that will express her frustration with bigotry and also encourage those fighting for justice. The song is “Mississippi Goddam.”
Soon, Simone is joined by others who have sneaked past police lines into the shattered sanctuary. Sarah aka Auntie (Aimee K. Bryant) is a devout church member who selflessly takes care of others. Fair-skinned Saffronia (Thomasina Petrus) and prostitute Sweet Thing (Traci Allen Shannon), who knows a lot of secrets, also show up.
Suspicious of one another, and grieving, the women soon get into a conflict. But in a moment of supernatural grace, they stop their fussing and fighting when they hear the voices of the dead children.
All of the cast members are well-known for their singing and acting. Both Bryant and Petrus deliver with honesty and style, even if their characters are similar to those they have played in the past. Shannon, who will revive her star turn in “Cinderella” at the Children’s Theatre this fall, shows her range. As Sweet Thing, she comes onstage like a bat out of hell, armed with a knife and ready to cut someone. Shannon is totally surprising and convincing in the role, adding a feather to her theatrical cap.
Ham is not the first playwright to re-imagine a tragic episode from the civil rights movement. Katori Hall’s breakout play, “The Mountaintop,” is a supernatural work about the last night of the Rev. Martin Luther King’s life. That play catapulted Hall to theatrical stardom. “Four Women” will certainly propel Ham, a journeywoman playwright, especially if she can take this great cast along.
For the rest of us, the play, with its sweet songs set among the ruins, is a reminder of the dear cost of our freedom.