Attempting to emulate Nina Simone is a tall order. She was best known as a virtuosic musician, but offstage she was largely misunderstood and struggled with emotional trauma. But the cast of Nina Simone: Four Women, running through March 31 at People’s Light, made it work.
The show opens with Nina (Regina Marie Williams) sitting at the piano, performing lines from “I Love You, Porgy.” A startling crash interrupts, and the curtain rises upon a striking set designed by D’Vaughn Agu.
The walls of a church are tattered, and some of its stained glass windows are broken. Bibles and papers litter the floor and pews. A Nina doppleganger (Mala Waldron), dressed exactly like the character Nina, now sits at the piano. She accompanies singing throughout the production but has no speaking role. The piano sits at the right side of the stage, untouched by the bombing and suggestively immune from the chaos.
Nina walks onto the stage, toying with lyrics and melodies.
The play, named after Simone’s 1966 hit song, follows the story of four women (including Simone) seeking refuge at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., during riots after the church bombing that killed four young girls.
The audience is next introduced to middle-age Sarah (Miche Braden), a working-class Southern woman with a hearty sense of humor and a robust voice to match.
It’s obvious that Nina and Sarah’s lives are vastly different. Nina, in a metallic gown, is worldly. Her views are radical to Sarah, a housekeeper. The two find common ground in music.
Almost randomly, Braden belts out an a cappella “His Eye is on the Sparrow.” Her voice is mature and sultry. Williams joins in harmony, underscoring Simone’s gospel roots.
Delightful bickering between Sarah and Nina moves the show along until Sephronia (Natalie Wachen) is introduced. Sephronia is a fair-skinned young woman who’s the product of an interracial sexual assault. She tumbles onto the stage, also trying to avoid the terror of the riots.
Nina and Sarah interrogate the authenticity of this new arrival’s blackness, claiming she could pass for white. The three engage in a discussion that challenges why women’s contributions in the civil rights movement are given such short shrift. They also debate whether music was an effective form of activism, as Nina maintains.
Songs are interspersed with the tense conversations, revealing that Williams and Braden are the superior vocalists.
A fourth woman, Sweet Thing (Tsebiyah Mishael Derry), enters well along into the show, brandishing a knife and looking for Sephronia.
Sweet Thing is a curvaceous young woman who makes a living as a sex worker. A man is at the root of her conflict with Sephronia, which felt more clichéd than interesting because it departed from the play’s themes of equality and feminism.
As each of the four women’s stories unspools, Nina is working to finish “Mississippi Goddam,” one of Simone’s first songs about the civil rights movement.
By the end of the play, she finishes it and shares it with others. This moment is well worth the wait. The whole play builds toward the song, and Williams nailed it.
The show closes with the cast singing “Four Women," with each character embodying a woman described in the song.
Nina Simone: Four Women deserves credit for its acting and musical splendor, which lived up to high expectations.
But at Saturday’s show, there was a technical problem with the sound. It was clear the actors could sing, but it was hard to hear their harmonies clearly, a big missed opportunity.
Nina Simone: Four Women
Through March 31 at People’s Light, 39 Conestoga Rd., Malvern. Tickets: $45-$81. Information: 610-644-3500, peopleslight.org