Ahead of Nina Simone: Four Women’s 2016 premiere at Park Square Theatre, the playwright spoke to writer Matt DiCintio about Simone’s inspiration and her own.
Can you talk about how you and Regina Williams came together on this?
Regina Williams had brought the concept of her one-woman Nina Simone show to Park Square, and she and [Artistic Director] Richard Cook contacted me because they wanted a playwright to help develop it. Regina had starred in my play Scapegoat at the Playwrights’ Center, and she admired how I was able to dramatize history in that play. I had listened to Ms. Simone’s music since I was a child, but her civil rights work didn’t become known to me until much, much later. I said “yes” to joining Regina on this project because it’s one of the most ambitious plays I’ve ever written, and I saw the challenge of telling the story of how Ms. Simone went from being a mere artist to an artist-activist (an important distinction). She felt very strongly after the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church and the murder of Medgar Evers that her music needed to change direction. Her people were fighting in the streets for their rights, and her old music did not reflect that struggle. She had to start creating art that reflected the times for Black people. If it meant making her mostly White audience uncomfortable, she didn’t really care.
Can you talk about the play’s title and how it reflects Simone’s music and politics?
Ms. Simone examines issues of colorism and Black female archetypes in her song “Four Women.” There are painful things about being a Black woman that still have yet to be put to bed 50 years after this song’s release. Regina and I spoke about how Ms. Simone seemed to embody a different vocality depending on what song she was singing. The “four women” framework helped to reflect the multiple vocalities as seen through these four women who also represent bits of Ms. Simone’s life as well. I saw great value in telling a story that could delve deeply into the question of what exactly is an artist’s responsibility to reflect the times—as Ms. Simone proclaimed—and how Black women and our solidarity fare in this battle. Some of my other plays examine women caught in the crosshairs of history (Ruby Bridges, the four little girls, and now Nina Simone). It’s a topic I have an incredible affinity for. Incidentally, all three of these plays are being produced at the same time this spring in the Twin Cities.
Many audience members, especially younger generations, may not be aware of the role musicians like Simone played in the Civil Rights Movement. Why do you feel it’s important that we don’t forget them?
This play shines a light on the Black women who were and were not musicians during this movement who were often marginalized and forced into the background—even though we were the backbone of the movement. Even though Ms. Simone’s music was such a substantial part of the movement until around 1970, after this she was basically pushed into relative obscurity. Even books on the Civil Rights Movement don’t index her or discuss how critical she was to the movement. If anything we can see how art and activism can come together to provide a platform for an artist.
This interview originally appeared in Park Square Theatre’s playbill for the 2016 world premiere of Nina Simone: Four Women. Used with permission.
Nina Simone performs "Mississippi Goddam," the first protest song she wrote after the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing and the murder of Medgar Evers spurred her to activism.