Maverick Life


Nina Simone, exorcising the demon of segregation

Nina Simone, exorcising the demon of segregation
Image supplied. Photo: Iris Dawn Parker.

In celebration of Black History Month, the Market Theatre in collaboration with the American Embassy hosted Nina Simone Four Women, a play based on the African-American jazz and blues singer’s life and her song, Four Women. On stage, the song comes to life to display the cost of hiding complexity in the political struggle of the civil rights era.

On 28 August 1963, 250,000 people descended on Washington DC for what is now known as the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, aimed at highlighting to the American public the conditions under which African-Americans lived.

The vast crowd, both black and white, men and women, in their different religious affiliations and sexual orientation, marched to the Lincoln Memorial where Martin Luther King Jr announced to the world his dream for America.

Yet, a more minute inspection of the march would show compromises and hidden frustrations among the people in the crowd, all hidden for the sake of unity, and a show of strength against the Jim Crow segregation laws. Women, who played a critical organising role in the Civil Rights era, were not allowed to speak at the ceremony except to sing for the crowd. Members of the LGBQT community such as the prolific Civil Rights writer James Baldwin were not even acknowledged as part of the movement. Tongues were bitten, voices were suppressed and for a moment the nation felt a great sense of reconciliation.

A month later, on 16 September 1963, members of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) bombed the 16th Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four black girls. And it is at this moment that Nina Simone, the blues singer and pianist, shifted into activism. She was a woman who refused to hold her tongue, and paid a steep price for it.

Nina Simone Four Women, showing at the Market Theatre and written by African-American playwright Christina Ham, takes Simone’s song about four black women, stereotyped because of their race and gender, and places them on stage, giving them voices beyond the song.

Image supplied. Photo: Iris Dawn Parker.

Simone’s four characters are depicted on stage by South African artists. Aunt Sarah, who Simone described as the stereotypical strong black woman and “strong enough to take the pain”, is portrayed impeccably by Lerato Mvelase. Sephronia, a light-skinned woman caught “between two worlds” of black and white, is played by Noxolo Dlamini, with Mona Monyane Skenjana playing Sweet Thing, a prostitute with tan skin and fair hair, who is only accepted for sexual favours. Busi Lurayi plays the enigmatic Simone and also Peaches, whose skin is brown and is “awfully bitter” because her “parents were slaves”.

The four women meet at the wreckage of the church bombing, where Simone tries to connect to the spirit of the four girls who died there and the emotions experienced in the destruction — the pain and the rage, to translate it into song. This is her attempt to break free from just being an artist but to fulfil her responsibility as one who reflects the times.

Simone, who was a neighbour and a student of Malcolm X’s ideas of self-determination and armed struggle, goes toe-to-toe with Sephronia, a follower of Dr King’s passive resistance. Sweet Thing, on the other hand, feels left out of the Civil Rights movement. To her, the male-dominated space and their ideas of respectability exclude her and Aunt Sarah.

Image supplied. Photo: Iris Dawn Parker.

The play is gripping, with an interplay of Simone’s songs immersed with her harrowing voice and the dialogue of women’s experiences in the fight for freedom. Clashing class with colourism and ideological positions, the play searches for truth and exposes the cost of those left behind in the political struggle of equality for the sake of expediency.

Simone ends up penning Mississippi Goddamn, a song about releasing pent-up anger in an age of black respectability and at a time when the Civil Rights leaders wanted to portray an image of a type of respectable blackness that would be accepted by white people post-desegregation. Simone broke ranks by saying what everyone felt, but no one wanted to say.

She chose to sing the songs that reflected the current condition. What she did not realise was that people don’t like to see their true selves in the mirror. After a successful career as a jazz and blues singer in the Fifties, Simone’s career plummeted in the Sixties as radio stations refused to play her music and she received fewer and fewer bookings.

If Dr King has a dream, I just wonder where we fit into it?” said Simone’s character on stage, which roused an affirming murmur in the audience.

She chose not to hide the complex and the messy side of the civil rights movement. When compromises are made for expediency at the expense of dignity, equality and the rights of others, that freedom is false and fated to crumble.

The political conditions of our day are so complex and often seem insurmountable. One wonders whether we would accept an artist who reflected with complete honesty, transparency and integrity, the truth of our day. DM

Nina Simone Four Women is on at the Market Theatre until 24 February 2019.


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