In 2011, Ivey-winning actor and singer Regina Marie Williams created and sang a concert of Nina Simone songs at the Capri Theater. “Nina … I Put a Spell on You” cast a spell on the audience – and on Williams. “I just couldn’t shake her,” Williams said. “I couldn’t let her go – this woman with all those voices, all those layers, and the songs that had so many stories behind them. I had scratched the surface and I needed to do more.”
Not long after, she talked with Richard Cook, artistic director at Park Square Theatre. “I told him about the Nina Simone concert, and we talked about creating a play, because that’s what Park Square does. We actually applied for grants to get it done.” When the grants didn’t materialize, “we almost let it go. But Richard said, ‘We should do this no matter what, whether we get money from someone else or not. The theater is willing to make the leap.’ Then he said, ‘Who do you think should direct it? Who should write it?’
“When you’re in a position to do something like this,” Williams said in conversation Wednesday morning, “it’s not just about making a statement. It’s about making it right. I wanted a black woman to direct this piece, and I wanted a black woman to write it.”
Written by Christina Ham, directed by Faye M. Price, with an all-black cast including Williams, Aimee K. Bryant, Thomasina Petrus, Traci Allen Shannon and Sanford Moore, “Nina Simone: Four Women” opens Friday on Park Square’s Andy Boss thrust stage. It’s a Park Square commission and a world premiere.
The new play is set in 1963, the year Medgar Evers was murdered in Mississippi; the year four black children were killed in a church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama; the year Simone wrote “Mississippi Goddam,” the blistering activist anthem that was banned in several Southern states. In her autobiography, Simone noted that she wrote the song in lieu of getting a gun.
More than 50 years later, the lyrics are still timely: “Can’t you see it / Can’t you feel it / It’s all in the air / I can’t stand the pressure much longer / Somebody say a prayer.” And “I don’t trust you anymore / You keep on saying ‘Go slow! Go slow!’ / But that’s just the trouble/ ‘Do it slow’ / Desegregation / ‘Do it slow’ / Mass participation / ‘Do it slow’ / Reunification / ‘Do it slow’ / Do things gradually / ‘Do it slow’ / But bring more tragedy / ‘Do it slow’ / Why don’t you see it / Why don’t you feel it / I don’t know / I don’t know.”
Williams believes that “Nina Simone: Four Women” is Christina Ham’s “Mississippi Goddam.”
“I haven’t talked to her about it, but I know that it is,” Williams said. “She said this is the hardest play she’s ever written. She struggled with it. … In the play, the character Sarah says, ‘What do I do? You march, you protest this way – what is my job?’ Christina decided that her job is to write a play.”
The idea for the play was Williams’ baby, but she had to step back and let Ham do her thing. “I gave her information and she did with it what she wanted. We had to trust her.” That took a while. “We had several meetings over a year, and one day Faye asked me, ‘At what point are you going to become the actor and leave the producing to Richard, the directing to me and the writing to Christina?’ I said, ‘That’s a good question. I guess I’m ready to do it now.’ That was a year ago.”
Williams didn’t see the script until the first day of rehearsals. She feels that Ham has done “an amazing job, and when I say amazing, I mean it, because I don’t find myself acting. The words come through me and I say them, but I feel I’m not Regina. … I honest to goodness feel like something changes in me.”
The play draws on another famous Simone song, “Four Women.” The women in the song are Aunt Sarah, a long-suffering servant (Bryant); Saffronia, a mixed-race product of rape, living between two worlds (Petrus); Sweet Thing, a prostitute (Shannon); and tough, bitter Peaches (Williams, who plays Simone).
Shannon is a member of the Children’s Theatre acting company; her most recent role was Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz.” But she’s not in Kansas anymore. “She’s going to surprise a lot of people with what she comes with,” Washington said. “We’ve worked together before, and she has a sweet voice – just lovely – but now she’s here with us. When she sings ‘My name is SWEET THING!’ it rings throughout the theater.”
There are a lot of theaters in the Twin Cities. Why did Williams choose Park Square as the place to float the idea for a play so near to her heart? “Because Richard’s ears were open, and I knew he was in a position to do something about it. And it would be what I asked for. It wouldn’t be manipulated or watered down. … He’s doing wonderful stuff over there, making ‘theater for you, yes you,’ whoever you are – and that’s whoever you are. … He’s changing the face of the theater, and the audience.” Williams pointed to Park Square’s 2015 production of “The Color Purple,” which featured the largest all African-American cast in its history. (Williams had the role of Shug Avery.)
What does Williams hope the audience will feel and understand from the new play? “First, I want them to be more interested in Nina Simone. I want them to go out and get that music and listen to it. Then I want them to find out who she was.
“There’s a line where Nina Simone says, ‘I’m going to grab you by the throat, and it may hurt your feelings the way it hurts mine every minute of every day.’ It’s uncomfortable to know that people who suffer racism, all these isms, deal with this – we deal with this – on a daily basis.
“And sometimes, when somebody shuts down a highway, try and have more of an understanding of why they’re doing this. Don’t just say that they’re stupid. Maybe think, ‘Oh, they’re doing this because they experience this inconvenience on a daily basis.’ So I guess that’s what I want them to get from it.
“It took me a while to get it. ‘Oh, that’s why they’re demonstrating. This is why they’re disrupting.’ Because that’s not how I do things. In this play, you’ll see that everybody doesn’t do things the same way. There’s an argument I see on Facebook all the time: ‘What would Martin Luther King say about this? [The Civil Rights movement] was a peaceful movement!’ They haven’t read their history, or don’t know it. SNCC [the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] were the youth, like Black Lives Matter.
“Christina Ham has addressed that in this play, with these four women and how they choose to protest. They’re all different, and none of them are wrong.”
“Nina Simone: Four Women,” a play with music, opens Friday, March 11 on Park Square’s Andy Boss thrust stage. FMI and tickets ($40/$60). Ends March 26.