DIANE DE BEER
NINA SIMONE FOUR WOMEN
DIRECTOR: James Ngcobo
PLAYWRIGHT: Christine Ham
MUSICAL DIRECTOR: Tshepo Mngoma
LIGHTING DESIGNER: Mandla Mtshali
SET DESIGNER: Nadya Cohen
COSTUME DESIGNER: Onthatile Matshidiso
CAST: Busi Lurayi, Lerato Mvelase, Mona Monyane Skenjana, Noxolo Dlamini
MUSICIANS AND SINGERS: Bryan Mtsweni, Ezbie Moilwa, Mpho Kodisang
Smanga Ngubane, Sam Ibeh
VENUE: John Kani Theatre at the Market
DATES: Until February 24
With Artistic Director James Ngcobo’s tradition of commemorating Black History Month, his pick of this play starring mainly women is, as Nina Simone so aptly said, about “an artist’s responsibility to reflect the times”.
With the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements in everyone’s consciousness (or it should be) the Simone-driven play is a clever choice with a cast of powerful young actors strutting the stage.
And even halfway into the run, the theatre is packed with a young (mainly black) audience and they’re enraptured and engaged as these women speak to them with great gusto.
It’s not for the lily-livered because in the main, women haven’t had a voice and black women especially were never invited to speak their mind and tell their stories.
It’s their time and it’s like its all spilling out with an anger that’s palpable but covering a pain that so’s deep and so sore, it breaks your heart while listening.
When Simone slips into a quiet moment and opens her heart about her own experience of living in a world that seems to hate and discard her, it’s like an open wound she exposes to everyone willing to look more closely.
On September 16, 1963, the day after the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, Simone shifted her career from artist to artist–activist. This is where the play begins, in the church with riots outside and the pain of four little girls killed in hatred etched on everyone’s mind. She is writing a song when three diverse women enter and engage about their lives as black women.
But so deep is the self-hatred and lack of confidence, they turn not only on those who mean them harm but also on each other as they compare shades of skin colour and the intent with which each lives her life.
Interwoven with much talk is Simone’s haunting music dominated by Mississippi Goddam, Black is the Colour of My True Love’s Hair and closing with the obvious Four Women, the song from which the women in the play were drawn.
And it is this mix that moves in and out of the consciousness. While the songs complete the conversations of the women, they are more contemplative if heart-breaking before the next storm unleashes as the women twist and turn in their tension and anguish of years of abuse punctuated by the current attack.
It is a sparse set by Nadya Cohen yet effective in its symbolic power and the women are encouraged to fill the stage, which they do with great abandon. Ncgobo obviously wanted them to embrace their power in this moment – and they do.
The performances are sometimes uneven, Lurayi perhaps hampered by capturing the Simone kinetic energy, but she soars in the quieter moments and in song. It is quite a presence that she has to establish, and the deep timbre of her voice works in her favour. Mvelase, the most comfortable on stage, inhabits her Aunt Sarah, a domestic worker, with quiet dignity, while the young Dlamini is passionate in her rebellion.
Then comes the abrasive whirlwind Monyane Skenjana to perform in the person of an unapologetic prostitute who believes in disarming if not disabling before an offensive can begin. It’s a tough performance to catch but in the mix, it brings the chaos of their lives into sharper focus and adds some light relief to what could become too much to witness and bear.
Cushioning all that is the piano playing of Brian Motsweni supported by a trio of other musicians and two singers, all adding to the depth of the soundtrack. Other sounds like the sudden rush of the riot don’t get the balance right and while the two singers worked well as they sat to the side, the look was confusing. Perhaps they would have slotted in more smoothly as part of the musos rather than characters, but not quite.
Quibbles aside, the importance of the production, what is said and who is saying it, right now, taking into account what is swirling around in the world currently, this is a majestic production.
Theatre is struggling more than ever with little help from anywhere. Even newspapers, their traditional support, are dwindling with less and less art reporting. Yet the audience who were there to look and listen, were predominantly young and black, probably the most sought-after demographic.
And they were delighted – with reason.