The 2016 hit “Nina Simone: Four Women” has returned to Park Square Theatre with prettier music, more evocative story elements and a couple of added showstoppers.
Though not quite a supersizing of Christina Ham’s music-infused play, which set box office records when it debuted a year ago, the changes have made it heftier and brought the length to two hours. Park Square has added a week to the popular show, which opened over the weekend at the 200-seat Andy Boss Thrust Stage in St. Paul, and continues until March 5.
“Nina Simone” is an unlikely hit. This is really an American tragedy, but one told with beauty by a quartet of singing women, led by Regina Marie Williams and backed on piano by a pointedly nonspeaking Sanford Moore.
Deftly directed by Faye Price, the play is set in the bombed-out ruins of Birmingham’s 16th Avenue Baptist Church on Sept. 16, 1963, the day after dynamite planted by white supremacists killed four black girls in a Sunday school class.
The girls’ voices haunt the ruins as the four women, who represent different archetypes, struggle to find a way forward.
One is the faithful and matronly church member Sarah (Aimee K. Bryant, understated but powerful). Another visitor to the church is Sephronia (Jamila Anderson, who replaces Thomasina Petrus and brings her own fire to the role), a fair-skinned woman who is misunderstood. She has some history with sex worker Sweet Thing (Traci Allen Shannon, who brings an unusual charge to the show — and a knife).
But the first to appear in the wrecked sanctuary is Nina Simone (Williams). At a crossroads in her career, Simone has come to draw bloody inspiration amid the embers, overturned music scores and detritus of the bombing as she composes her powerful civil-rights anthem “Mississippi Goddam.”
Added details, including a recovered shoe that may have belonged to one of the murdered girls, make this story more visceral than last year’s staging. The humor is sharper, too. What remains, though, is an unresolved narrative tension between Simone’s personal story and the attempt to represent a variety of archetypal black women.
If there’s one thing in “Nina Simone” that’s unassailable, it’s the music, which includes Simone’s songs as well as spirituals. Led by Williams in a performance that is by turns fierce, haughty and affecting, the women sing rousing renditions of “Sinnerman” and “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” plus a new anthemic number by playwright Ham, “Shout, Oh Mary.”
That number, near the end of the play, takes us into the women’s souls. It’s a moving and gorgeous testimonial of their struggles against strictures, even as they persist in an unjust world.