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Simone themes as urgent today as in 1963

Linking the past and present: the cast of Nina Simone — Four Women. 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)

Nina Simone — Four Women is set in 1963 but the themes it tackles are as urgent and in need of frank dissection now as they were 56 years ago.

That’s perhaps one of the most disturbing things about watching this 90-minute non-stop powerhouse of a show in 2019: just how far we haven’t come in the intervening years.

But although Christina Ham’s play pivots around one of the most sickening acts of terrorism by white supremacists in America’s history — the infamous bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, which killed four black girls — it isn’t depressing.

How could it be, when what unfolds is a joyful exploration of the post-1963 work of Nina Simone — a period of time when the vastly talented singer-songwriter found her musical voice as an outspoken social commentator.

Put on as part of the Bermuda Festival of the Performing Arts, the play begins in the aftermath of the bombing, with Simone having entered the church seeking inspiration from the atrocity to write a song.

As she paces the floor, another black woman appears — a housekeeper, craving safety from the protest raging outside — who reminds Simone of her mother and who can’t quite grasp why she wants to write “music that wakes people up”.

Though the pair spar verbally on how best to tackle this “war” on black people, when they begin to sing the gospel hymn His Eye is on the Sparrow, they are at once in perfect harmony.

It’s a beautiful, spine-tingling moment — and there are several more to come.

The pair are eventually joined by two other women — the first a “high yellow” rights activist, the second a prostitute whose skin is “tan” and who doesn’t define herself as solely black.

What follows is a series of exchanges, often fraught, between the four women about the politically and racially-charged times they live in and about how they view themselves and one another (and their differing skin tones).

The bombing was a particularly painful point in America’s history when change was coming, but not fast enough for Simone, whose frustration and rage was palpable in the songs she wrote during that era.

There isn’t a plot here, as such, and the dialogue doesn’t always feel entirely natural, laden as it is with detail about both Simone’s life and the civil rights struggle.

But it works just fine as a kind of series of stylised set pieces, punctuated by some of the most incredible ensemble singing I have ever heard.

Broadway actor Harriett D Foy is simply spellbinding as Simone: impossible to take your eyes off and capturing her indomitable spirit without ever veering into impersonation.

And Carla Hargrove really impresses as Sweet Thing, particularly when her character challenges Simone, culminating in a breathtaking moment of revelation for the iconic singer.

There were a couple of other moments which I found intensely moving.

When Sarah, the housekeeper, insists on stating the names of the dead girls — Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Carol Denise McNair — it’s a necessary and stark reminder of the human tragedy behind the drama.

It seems to be a way of ensuring the play honours them, those four girls who never made it to womanhood, rather than simply uses the scene of their deaths as a dramatic device.

Later, Foy and her co-stars perform one of Simone’s best-known songs: To Be Young, Gifted and Black.

“There are a billion boys and girls/Who are young, gifted and black/And that’s a fact! ... We must begin to tell our young/There’s a world waiting for you/This is a quest that’s just begun.”

It’s such a proud rallying call, so uplifting — and an incredible counterpoint to the gruesome reality of what happened at the church and to Simone’s devastating admission that she views herself as ugly, because the “world has never been kind to the really black-looking women”.

Hearing it performed at St Paul AME Church, a venue indelibly linked to the fight for equal rights and desegregation in Bermuda, just adds to the impact.

Those in the audience familiar with Nina Simone’s 1966 composition Four Women will realise long before the show draws to a close that those on stage with Simone are extended versions of three of the women depicted in her song.

Ham’s play and Marcus Gardley’s direction brings them to life — and pays startling tribute to the genius that was Nina Simone in a way in which she would surely have approved.

• The final performance of Nina Simone — Four Women is this evening at 7.30pm at St Paul AME Church. Tickets, $80, are available at ptix.bermudafestival.org.