On Sept. 15, 1963, four little girls — Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carol Denise McNair and Carole Robertson — were killed when the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, was bombed by white supremacists. The tragedy was one of many inflicted on black people during that era that pushed iconic singer Nina Simone toward activism both in her life and in her music.
Simone’s song “Four Women” represents this shift as she traces the effects of white supremacy on black women in the U.S. through brief portraits of four black women archetypes. The music slowly builds as each character is presented — from a somber depiction of the enslaved “strong black woman,” eventually to the frenzied and righteously angry black woman, Peaches.
Christina Ham’s play, “Nina Simone: Four Women,” on stage April 26 to June 2 at Seattle Repertory Theatre, weaves together this shift in Simone’s career with the unrest after the Birmingham bombing, and with an imagined meeting in a church of the four women from Simone’s song.
The play couldn’t have found a more perfect match in director Valerie Curtis-Newton, who, not unlike Simone, characterizes herself as an “activist-artist.”
Curtis-Newton found common ground both in Simone’s activism and art and in the play’s focus on a community of black women.
“In some ways, we can’t afford only to be entertained,” said Curtis-Newton in an interview.
“I have to make sure that the black person is represented in their full humanness. So often that humanness is flattened out or distilled in ways that undermine it. I think my job as an artist is to make sure that our humanity is out in the world,” Curtis-Newton said.
Curtis-Newton has worked in Seattle’s theater community for 25 years. “Nina Simone: Four Women” will be the first time she has directed a production at Seattle Rep.
“I’ve been artistic director for four years, so I can’t go back that far. But I have been here long enough to get to know Val’s work and admire it,” said Seattle Rep artistic director Braden Abraham, who first joined the Rep as an artistic intern in 2002. “It was serendipitous that we discovered this play around the same time. When I heard of her interest, I immediately offered it to her and I’m thrilled she said yes.”
Curtis-Newton plans to make the most of her debut at the Rep. She intends to supplement the lobby displays and study guides that contextualize the play, by using sound and projections on stage to portray the riots over the Birmingham bombings going on outside the church where the four women have taken refuge and work through their own issues.
“This idea that it can just be in the study guide or can be a lobby display, for me that’s the subliminal message of ‘get over it and put it in the past … ’ We have a living history. It’s not static, it’s not just dead pictures on the wall … It continues to be rewritten over and over again because the country in many ways hasn’t changed as much as people want to believe it has,” she said.
One of the issues addressed both in Simone’s original song and in Ham’s play is colorism — discrimination that values lighter skin over darker skin — within the black community.
One of the most striking elements of the play, Curtis-Newton said, is the ways that communities must deal with their own internal issues, even as the problems of the larger society rage on around them.
“It’s about how we have to get it together so we can leave the sanctuary and go out and fight,” she said.
For Curtis-Newton, community and theater have always been inextricably linked. As an Air Force kid, she grew up moving around the country, and theater was how she became a part of ever-new communities.
“I found that in making plays, I get to make community and it can be different kinds of community. But that’s the thing ultimately, to get people to talk about important and difficult issues, by entertaining them and then provoking them,” she said.
In Seattle’s theater community, Curtis-Newton is often the only black woman in the room, and she sees it as her duty to draw attention to these predominantly white spaces.
“If I don’t, then when the young people coming up after me encounter a situation [where] they’re the only ones, then that’s my fault as much as it is the structure’s,” she said. “If I let them say ‘we didn’t know,’ then that part’s my fault. They can say ‘we didn’t care,’ or ‘we didn’t know what to do about it,’ but after I point it out, they can no longer say ‘I didn’t know.’ ”
If there’s one thing Curtis-Newton hopes audience members walk away from the play with, it’s the work of black women in communities and fields everywhere.
“There are black women in every sphere of civic activity whose names go largely unspoken. I would hope that our production of the play would make people take notice of the space they’re in where there are black women present,” said Curtis-Newton. “For us just to be actually seen. Not taken for granted, not invisible, but actually seen.”
“Nina Simone: Four Women,” by Christina Ham. April 26-June 2; Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer St., Seattle; $17-$80 (prices subject to change); 206-443-2222, seattlerep.org