Nina Simone first arrived at the cultural precinct opposite Mary Fitzgerald Square in Newtown, Johannesburg, in mid-July 1998. The 65-year-old singer and pianist would dine rather than perform at Gramadoelas, the restaurant next door to the Market Theatre at that time.
Nelson Mandela was celebrating his 80th birthday that year and the world’s rich and famous had come to South Africa to celebrate his lifetime of resilience and struggle against the apartheid government. Simone was on the roster of celebrated artists who came to pay homage to the elderly statesman.
A signifier of the local and global, Simone’s hair, intricately sewn together in a conical up-do, was an aesthetic she assumed and embraced during her brief stint in Monrovia, Liberia, in the 1970s. This was after she became disillusioned with the United States, following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
On this night, however, despite sharing a guest book with former presidents François Mitterrand, Bill Clinton and international actors such as Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington, Simone might have resembled someone of less consequence than the famed “high priestess of soul”.
Tired and aged from her self-imposed exile from the US since 1976, Simone may have resembled any other ordinary American tourist dining alone in a foreign country.
With no pomp and perhaps little fuss, Eunice Kathleen Waymon – Simone’s birth name – may have sat down to a traditional serving of mopane worms and Cape Malay curry, or any other Gramadoelas staple, along with a concoction of her own making of lemon-infused water with cayenne pepper.
Matthew Krouse, senior publicist of the Market Theatre at the time, remembers being told when he arrived for work the next morning that Simone had been there alone, with no one to speak to about herself or her music.
“It’s not really a story. I didn’t see her that night,” he says, a little puzzled at the enquiry about this missed encounter.
“My phone was off that night and obviously when they called, they couldn’t get hold of me.”
Twenty-one years later, Simone’s spirit returns to the Market Theatre as part of its collaboration with the US embassy on the staged production of Nina Simone: Four Women.
This reworked dramatisation of Simone’s classic Four Women, first heard on her 1966 album Wild is the Wind, by American playwright Christina Ham, South African actor and director James Ngcobo and musical director Tshepo Mngoma, makes it possible for Simone to reappear in Johannesburg, albeit altered and scripted this time.
Summoned and portrayed by actress Busisiwe Lurayi, Simone’s spirit appears as a young militant singer-songwriter on the John Kani stage along with Aunt Sarah, played by Lerato Mvelase, Noxolo Dlamini as Saffronia and Sweet Thing played by Mona Monyane Skenjana.
Ham’s script allows for an explication and imaginative reworking of the details of that day, to centralise the four women brought to life by the deceptively simple and repetitive single piano note pattern played by Simone.
The short biographical details of these women strung together in each stanza of Simone’s record lay the foundational basis for the characters and themes explored in this play.
For instance, where Simone simply sings of the woman in her first verse as being strong enough to take the pain, inflicted again and again, Ham supplements that description of Aunt Sarah by creating an overworked and exploited domestic worker. Although Aunt Sarah is a pious and devout Christian woman, Mvelase’s portrayal of her character shows up the inner conflict she deals with in trying to reckon with the idea of eternal servitude.
My skin is yellow, my hair is long, between two worlds, I do belong continues Simone in the second verse of the song.
Ham’s characterisation and Dlamini’s portrayal of Saffronia as a mixed-race young woman who is the product of rape by her estranged, older white father of her then young, black and vulnerable mother, sticks quite closely to Simone’s description.
Issues around US anti-miscegenation laws prior to 1967 are brought into sharp focus through this character and parallel South Africa’s 1927 Immorality Act.
That said, however, despite having her blackness questioned by the rest of the ensemble, Saffronia reveals her commitment as an organiser and activist in the Civil Rights Movement.
The third woman, Sweet Thing, is a sex worker, as is suggested by Simone’s rhetorical lyrics. She asks, Whose little girl am I? And responds seductively to her own question, Anyone who has money to buy. In the play, Skenjane’s dialogue crystallises and catalyses conversations around class and colourism.
Played out against a sparse set, with two benches on opposite ends of the stage suggestive of the church pews, the cast of four transport their contemporary audiences back in time to Alabama in 1963, the morning after the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham.
Lurayi is propelled across the stage as a young Nina looking for inspiration for a song to chronicle, and perhaps respond to, this tragedy. For Nina, “it is the only thing that will stick around when everything and everyone has left”.
The audience later learns that this is Simone’s 1964 song, Mississippi Goddam, and as the narrative arc of the play continues to evolve, it is clear that Ham used the broad themes of the song to colour the interior life of her characters along with sociopolitical themes of the play.
In her 2010 biography, Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone, author Nadine Cohodas writes about how news of the bombing first reached Simone.
Simone had a private den in her Mount Vernon home in New York where she could write and practice for upcoming gigs. In it, Simone had a small radio on which she listened to music and the news after and in between playing.
At around 1pm on 15 September 1963, Cohodas writes, programming was interrupted for breaking news from Birmingham.
“Just as Youth Sunday at the 16th Street Baptist Church was about to begin, a bomb planted right outside the church exploded. Four girls who had been primping and preparing in the ladies’ room – they were going to help lead the adult service – were killed instantly. Denise McNair was only 11. Carol Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Addie Mae Collins were 14. In the tumult that followed, another young, black 13-year-old, Virgil Ware, was shot to death by two young white men who were cruising the city on a motor scooter decorated with Confederate Flags.”
In her autobiography, I Put A Spell on You, Simone’s rage is palpable as she describes how she felt about the bombing.
“I had it in my mind to go out and kill someone. I didn’t know, but someone I could identify as being in the way of my people getting some justice for the first time in 300 years … the idea of fighting for the rights of my people, killing for them if it came to that, didn’t disturb me too much.”
Mississippi Goddam became the outlet for her frustration. With its deceptive show tune melody and searing lyrics, Simone would write one of the most important songs in her extensive oeuvre.
As the South African cast of Four Women sang Mngoma’s arrangement of the song, the words bore an eerie resonance to the killing of Mlungisi Madonsela. He was a student at the Durban University of Technology whom private security guards shot during protests against the university’s exclusion of students on a financial basis and the lack of access to accommodation.
Performance and direction
There is a lot of ground to cover in this piece and while the dialogue in this realist play is powerful and the roster of actors impressive, some of the scenes run too long without a substantive shift in mood or energy.
One gets the sense that the actors are consistently trying to strike a balance in their individual performances, to reach their own narrative arcs while still being present for the collective story. As Dlamini told New Frame after her performance: “It is so easy for the show to be slow and sombre, but we had to be conscious about what we were saying and how that drove the show.”
Without the introduction of the music, which can sometimes feel like a disturbance because of the incredibly jarring and loud mic feed, the beat and rhythm of some scenes seemed laboured and monotonous.
What should be comical interludes are lost in long, wordy monologues, making it difficult for the actors to feed off one another.
That said, it is clear all four actors invested thought and time to achieve the physical likenesses of their characters; the way they move and hold tension in different parts of the body to best suit the needs of the character comes across well. For instance, when Mvelase scurries about with her head down, trying to busy herself in ways suggestive of an anxious woman, Lurayi moves with centred and deliberate intention, as an established international performer should.
There were moments of individual brilliance and clarity in the actors’ portrayals, but the piece didn’t always work as a cohesive whole. Nonetheless, it is a useful introduction to Nina Simone’s work, even if parts of her essence are stilted and fragmented.