Three questions with playwright Christina Ham; ‘Mamma Mia!’ at the Orpheum

Christina Ham

Playwright Christina Ham is in a good place, career-wise. Starting tonight, two of her plays will be on stage in St. Paul theaters. Both are back by popular demand.

“Ruby! The Story of Ruby Bridges,” which opened Friday (Feb. 3) at the SteppingStone Theatre, is there for the third time. The 2013 production was (still is) the best-selling show in the theater’s history, and last year’s return was also successful. The musical tells the true story of a young girl who integrated an all-white school in New Orleans in 1960.

“Nina Simone: Four Women,” which opens tonight (Tuesday, Feb. 7) at the Park Square Theatre, set box-office records in 2016. A play with music, it imagines the moment when Simone went from being an artist to being an artist-activist and a leading voice in the civil rights movement. It was originally set to close Feb. 26; on Monday, Park Square extended it another week.

A core writer at the Playwrights’ Center, Ham is also playwright-in-residence at Pillsbury House, supported by a three-year, $197,000 Mellon Foundation residency.

We spoke by phone on Monday morning. Ham was in California, visiting her mother.

MinnPost: Two plays, both back by popular demand, running simultaneously. How does that make you feel?

Christina Ham: Of course, it’s an incredible opportunity and I’m thrilled. Both plays talk to each other. Not intentionally, but they do. We see two dynamic women during the burgeoning of the civil rights movement. Nina Simone, in 1963, was at the heart of it, and Ruby Bridges, in 1960, right at the beginning. Their struggles speak to the embodiment of women who were in the movement, both willingly and not so planned.

MP: You’re known for tinkering with your plays. What’s new or different for each this time around?

CH: For “Nina,” it was adding two new songs and going deeper into her canon, particularly her civil rights songs. One is “Old Jim Crow,” which is not as well-known as some of her other songs but was just as important in terms of speaking to the movement. The other is “Brown Baby,” an Oscar Brown Jr. song that Mahalia Jackson covered as well. It was one of Nina’s first civil rights songs.

I deepened the relationships between the four women, and I became more clear about how Nina felt about having to live someone else’s goals and dreams, and her struggle to become her own musician on her own terms. Her mom wanted her to be a classical pianist, and Nina took that on and made it her own. Not getting into the Curtis Institute caused lifelong damage to her. Her husband, who was her manager, wanted her to be like Aretha Franklin, writing hit songs and getting away from what he considered protest music. She was always trying to live up to other people’s expectations but butting up against that as well.

For “Ruby Bridges,” this is the third production SteppingStone has done, so we didn’t make any changes. It’s going to be published, and it’s pretty much as is. My composer [Gary Rue] and I found a happy medium. Once you’ve done that, it’s good to know when not to mess with it anymore.

Photo by Dan Norman
“Ruby! The Story of Ruby Bridges”

MP: Both plays are set in the civil rights era. Both are more political than they were a year ago, or that’s how they will be perceived. Given our current times, what do you see as the core message of each play?

CH: “Ruby Bridges” talks about how hate is something adults spread. It’s something children have to learn; it’s not something they’re born knowing. Adults have to stop spreading hatred to their children. “Ruby Bridges” sums that up well, that we have to work very hard so our children don’t learn those bad lessons about hatred of others who don’t look or act like we do.

“Nina Simone” looks at how she shifts from being an artist to being an artist and an activist. Once the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church happened, she could no longer sit on the sidelines. She had to get actively involved in the movement. For me, “Nina Simone” asks us all, “How do we get involved?” I don’t know one person who hasn’t thought very carefully about how they won’t sit by idle anymore with what’s happening in our country. I think the play asks us all to choose a side.

“Ruby! The Story of Ruby Bridges” continues through Feb. 26, with shows Wednesdays-Fridays at 10 a.m. and noon (3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays). FMI and tickets ($12/16). Recommended for grades 1-6. “Nina Simone: Four Women” is in previews tonight through Thursday and opens Friday. FMI and tickets (previews $27/37, regular run $40/60).

This interview has been edited and condensed.

The picks

Starts tonight at the Orpheum: “Mamma Mia!” The smash hit musical with all those ABBA songs is at the Orpheum for the eighth time. This is the farewell tour, so catch it before it slips through your fingers. 7:30 p.m. tonight. FMI and tickets ($39-144). Buy in person at the State Theatre box office, save on fees. Ends Feb. 12.

Photo by Kevin Thomas Garcia
The Company of the “Mamma Mia!” Farewell Tour

Wednesday at Hamline Midway Library: Fireside Reading Series: Benjamin Percy: “Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction.” Are literary and genre fiction mutually exclusive? Uh, no, says the novelist and short story writer who wrote so-called literary fiction, then penned a werewolf novel called “Red Moon.” His next horror novel, “The Dark Net,” is due out in August. “Thrill Me” is a book about craft, and it should be fascinating to hear Percy talk about his own evolution. 7 p.m. in a library with a working wood-burning fireplace.

Thursday in Lind Hall at the U of M: “ ‘I’m a poet, and I know it:’ The Literary Bob Dylan.” This summer, the U’s English Department will offer a course called “The Literary Bob Dylan.” Because Nobel Prize. On Thursday, instructor and Ph.D. candidate Katelin Krieg will give a free preview. If you’d like to know what literary forms and devices Dylan uses in his lyrics, this is for you. It could be illuminating for those who cheered when Dylan won the Nobel, and also those who went “Huh?” 4 p.m. Free and open to the public.

Thursday at Magers & Quinn: Michael Tisserand presents “Krazy: George Herriman, A Life in Black and White.” A finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, Tisserand’s latest is a biography about the creator of the iconic Krazy Kat comic strip. Tisserand lives in New Orleans, but he grew up in Alexandria and graduated from the U of M. 7 p.m. Free.

Thursdays-Sundays at Lyric Arts Main Street Stage: The Drawer Boy.” First, it’s not about a boy in a drawer; it’s about a boy who draws. Canadian playwright Michael Healey’s award-winning play about a young playwright and two bachelor farmers, both World War II vets, encompasses friendship, storytelling, forgotten memories and the power of theater to heal, change and tell the truth. TIME magazine named it a Top 10 play of 2001. FMI and tickets ($16-30). Ends Feb. 19.

Hot tix

Big news for classical music fans: Superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma will perform with the Minnesota Orchestra on June 13. The tickets won’t actually go hot until March 20, when renewing and new classical season subscribers can buy them along with their 2017-18 season packages. Single tickets (if any are left) will be available starting May 12. If you’re on the fence about season tickets, this might be enough to tip you over.

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