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The truth that is Nina Simone

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Linking the past and present: Nina Simone — Four Women opens at St Paul AME Church tomorrow night. Seated from left are actors Carla Hargrove, Harriett D. Foy and Toni Martin. Standing from left are director Marcus Gardley, actor Theresa Cunningham and production stage manager Samuel Moses Jones (Photograph supplied)

As a singer Nina Simone was legendary but there was much more to her than her voice. Christina Ham’s play, Nina Simone — Four Women, opens at St Paul AME Church tomorrow night. T.J. Armand, the executive director of the Bermuda Festival of the Performing Arts and Harriett D. Foy, who plays the title role, talk below about the civil rights activist who taught black women that they were beautiful, too.

Q: What drew you to the play?

TJA: The Nina Simone story and the history of “artists as activists” have been an interest of mine for a long time; the list is too long to mention but James Baldwin, John Lennon and Nina Simone were, and still are, a tremendous inspiration.

What is interesting about the artist/activist is that the choice significantly alters their personal lives, livelihoods and comes at such a high risk, even the risk of death, imprisonment, etc, the cost is tremendous.

Yet the courage they had lingers on and continues to inspire future generations; the sacrifice they made benefits humanity.

This selfless act of risk-taking in the arts is witnessed less and less in contemporary culture and I wanted to focus on a play which encompasses this critical issue so elegantly. Christina Ham’s thought-provoking play fits our mission: entertain, educate and inspire.

When you add our “empowerment of women” theme into the picture, it was an exciting programming choice.

HDF: Initially, I was hesitant to step into Ms Simone’s shoes ... she is an icon. Our director, Timothy Douglas at Arena Stage, met with me a few times to discuss my issues, which we worked through. Once I delved into my research, I realised Ms Simone and I had more in common than originally thought.

We are both from North Carolina, we both are truly dedicated and disciplined with regard to our craft and we love “love”. Once I got out of my way, Ms Simone’s energy would jump in and I would just go with the flow.

Honestly, playing Nina Simone was never in my wheelhouse but now that she is, I welcome her with open arms.

Q: For those who don’t know, what’s Nina Simone — Four Women about?

TJA: Directed by multiple award-winning poet, playwright and director Marcus Gardley and starring Broadway veteran Harriett D. Foy as Nina Simone and a cast of four actors, this play written by Christina Ham is one of the most talked about and produced plays in recent years.

It’s September 16, 1963, the day after the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. This event led Nina Simone to shift her career from artist to artist-activist as she believed: “An artist’s responsibility is to reflect the times.”

Nina Simone — Four Women uses the framework of one of her most blistering songs, Four Women, to give voice to a group of women who suffered from self-hatred due to the different hues of their skin: Aunt Sarah (Theresa Cunningham), Sephronia (Toni Martin), Sweet Thing (Carla Hargrove) and Peaches (Harriett D. Foy). This production includes some of Nina Simone’s most popular civil rights anthems such as Mississippi Goddam, Go Limp and Young, Gifted, and Black to look at an artist and the women around her as their journey leads them down a path of discovery and healing.

Q: Think it’s a timely story for all that’s happening with women today?

TJA: Absolutely. When we were curating the “She Is Art” part of the programming arc, the relevance of the Me Too movement was internationally relevant and continues to be. When women are empowered, solutions arise. When women are empowered, equality surfaces.

When women are empowered, our culture is enriched. Nina Simone once said, “There’s no excuse for the young people not knowing who the heroes and heroines are, or were.” [There is also] of course her famous “me too” quote: “You’ve got to learn to leave the table when love is no longer being served.”

HDF: Absolutely! We as women have come a long way from the days of being in the background, but we still carry that baggage at different times. I think sisterhood is one of the important themes in the play and as a whole I think we could continue to lift each other up even more.

We as black women have had to deal with so much negativity with regard to our hair, body type and skin colour throughout history, it’s a wonder we have overcome at all.

In the end, we have to remember that we are so powerful as black women and we must continue to harness that power to move forward in a positive light.

Q: Think millennials are able to relate to her life story? Why/why not?

TJA: I think the civil rights aspect of the play links the story directly to the present. Although it’s a depiction of reality, this altered state leads to the truth that is Nina Simone. A life lived and recorded always has resonance in the future; perhaps the public has more of an interest towards famous icons’ life stories but these stories also tell us that all of our lives are important.

All of our struggles are valid and our existence should be recorded. The performing arts is a storytelling powerhouse of diverse disciplines and Nina Simone — Four Women fits that perfectly.

HDF: I love my millennials! They keep you in the forefront of technology!

In our play, I would say Sephronia and Sweet Thing represent the millennials as they navigate their way through the oppressive world.

Both are absolutely right in how they call out Nina Simone with regard to what she is doing for her people.

Both characters cut to the core of how we as women don’t stand up for each other, how we are so judgmental about each other’s life choices.

Sweet Thing especially offers Nina Simone a great gift in allowing her to shed her baggage and live in the light. And, I think most millennials will recognise some of Nina Simone’s music as it has been sampled for many hip hop/rap records.

• Nina Simone — Four Women runs tomorrow through Thursday, at 7.30pm at St Paul AME Church. Tickets, $80, are available at ptix.bermudafestival.org

Gospel, pop and classical: pianist Nina Simone is shown in this 1993 photograph