Nina Simone Four Women Gives Young Black Women A Powerful Platform To Speak Their Minds – It’s About Time

Busi Lerayi with Tshepo Mngoma, the piano player in performance
Busi Lerayi with Tshepo Mngoma, the piano player in performance

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.

In song Noxolo Dlamini, Mona Monyane Skenjana, Lerato Mvelase and Busi Lurayi
In song Noxolo Dlamini, Mona Monyane Skenjana, Lerato Mvelase and Busi Lurayi

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.

Busi Lurayi as Nina Simone surrounded by the rest of the cast.
Busi Lurayi as Nina Simone surrounded by the rest of the cast.

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.

For Artistic Director of The Market James Ngcobo, Theatre Is All About Diversity

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Lerato Mvelase, Busi Lurayi, director James Ngcobo, Mona Monyane Skenjana and Noxolo Dlamini Picture: Brett Rubin

Into the second month of 2019 and things are pumping at Joburg’s Market Theatre where artistic director James Ngcobo has staged Nina Simone Four Women to celebrate Black History Month with this South African premiere. He speaks to DIANE DE BEER about his future plans in this, his second term, at this iconic theatre:

 

For James Ngcobo, Nina Simone Four Women written by Christina Ham, one of a quartet of hot female playwrights in the US currently, means many different things. Presented in conjunction with the US Mission in SA, he believes strongly in staging this kind of work which forms part of the Market’s 6th annual commemoration of Black History Month.

It’s all about the message, telling the story and the four actresses on stage who will be portraying different aspects of Nina Simone, as the title indicates. “The play is based on four characters Simone created in a song,” explains Ngcobo who sees this as an exploration of the landscape of women.

It was Nina Simone who said: “Music can’t just be about the art, but it has to be an expression of the good, bad and ugly in life.” A staunch activist in the Civil Rights Movement in the ‘60s, she wrote songs that told stories of people she observed in everyday life. It is because of that truth that her music still resonates so strongly today, argues Ngcobo.

On September 16, 1963, the day after the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, Simone’s career shifted from artist to artist/activist because she believed as an artist it was her responsibility to reflect the times. And in this sacred place, four little girls lost their lives.

Nina Simone Four Women is set in the sadness of the church and also uses the framework of one of Simone’s most blistering songs Four Women to portray a quartet of women who suffered from self-hatred due to the different shades of their skin. As if being black in those times in that place wasn’t damning enough, they further judged themselves on the light- or darkness of their skin.

It’s also about the conversations between the four women. It’s about who they are, how they fight the battle, how they escape for solace – and in the background lingers the death of four little girls. For Ngcobo, this story from the past reverberates with the racism of our time.

“Nina made a choice when she started speaking out. She knew that talking about some of the things she did was to the detriment of her career, but that’s what she had to do,” he notes. And like her songs, this play is also all about storytelling. “That’s why her music still has impact today,” he says.

His cast includes Busi Lurayi as Nina (who brought a flippancy to her audition that caught the director’s eye), Lerato Mvelase (who starred in Colour Purple and King Kong, as Auntie Sarah who is only interested in her livelihood, daily washing and ironing), Mona Monyane Skenjana (who was part of his Coloured Museum cast and he’s been wanting to work with again) and Noxolo Dlamini (representing youth and thus hope) as the four women in the title. There’s also a young piano player representing Simone’s brother who tinkles away in the background – as well as two extra singers.

Nina Simone Four Women is staged in the main, John Kani Theatre until February 24, while storytelling of another kind is playing in the Mannie Manim Theatre.

zane meas and christo davids director of van wyk the storyteller of riverlea
Actor Zane Meas and Christo Davids director of Van Wyk The Storyteller of Riverlea

Van Wyk the Storyteller of Riverlea was created and is performed by well-known South African actor Zane Meas and directed by Christo Davids. These two have a previous links with Van Wyk as they both played in Janice Honeyman’s 2008 adaptation of Shirley, Goodness and Mercy which performed to full houses at the Market Theatre. This is the 5th time that they will be working together on stage in a partnership that spans over 12 years.

Anyone who has read Van Wyk’s books will know that he was foremost a storyteller. This particular piece explores his influences as a poet, as political activist and writer, his family life and his tragic battle with cancer.  It is an homage to his humour, political values and storytelling abilities, all of which add texture to the piece and insight into the writer’s life. (see review).

nailed starring khulu skenjana, aya mpama, katlego letsholonyane, zesuliwe hadebe and lunga khuhlane
Nailed starring Khulu Skenjana, Aya Mpama, Katlego Letsholonyane, Zesuliwe Hadebe and Lunga Khuhlane.

In the Barney Simon Theatre Nailed will premiere from February 8 to March 3. The production is sponsored by the Department of Arts and Culture’s Incubation Fund, aimed at assisting emerging practitioners to hone their skills from amateur to professional status.

If you want to tell the naked truth about post-apartheid South Africa, better do it through fiction believes The Market’s artistic director. Author Niq Mhlongo has long been a Ngcobo favourite and he believes he masters his art brilliantly.

His latest work, Soweto Under the Apricot Tree is a collection of short stories about contemporary Soweto, Johannesburg and South Africa and the one that caught Ngcobo’s attention. The stories are an account of township life with commentary on post-apartheid South Africa still grappling with many of the issues emanating from our past. “Every township house always had an apricot tree,” reminisces Ngcobo.

 It is a story about abuse of political power, infidelity and violence. It deals with corrupt, greedy and selfish politicians who are in the business not for the people but for self aggrandisement and personal gain.

This country knows better than many how behavior impacts on the lives of ordinary people and how it affects the morale of a country. That’s why this one will be fun to watch with an engaged audience as well as writing that comes alive on stage.

Nailed is directed by Luthando Mngomezulu, who was responsible for Isithunzi, the 2017 Zwakala Festival winner, and the cast includes Aya Mpama, Khulu Skenjana, Katlego Letsholonyane, Lunga Khuhlane, Nyaniso Dzedze and Zesuliwe Hadebe.

gregory-maqoma-in-exitexist.jpg
Gregory Maqoma in Exit/Exist

Other exciting plays to watch out for is a reworking of Tsafendasby by playwright Anton Krueger starring Renos Nicos Spanoudes and directed by the exciting Jade Bowers, who will add fresh and young perspective; in Exit/Exist, dancer/choreographer Gregory Maqoma takes inspiration from his ancestral past as he blends storytelling with his powerful dance vocabulary and dynamic live music in this moving solo performance with live musicians. It’s an examination of race, political power, and the melding of past and present. (Also watch out for a return of the haunting Cion – inspired by the Zakes Mda book -which will be staged in September to celebrate the company’s 20th anniversary.

There’s also a lot of buzz around the new John Kani play which deals with the relationship between a dying white actor (Anthony Sher) and his black nurse (John Kani) directed by Kani stalwart Janice Honeyman which will be staged in the latter half of the year. The Baxter’s production of Strindberg’s The Goat starring the powerful combination of Jennifer Steyn and Andrew Buckland directed by Mdu Kweyana will also be staged.

Times may be tough, but theatre is as always inspired.