You wouldn’t want a conventional biographical musical for the combative Nina Simone, a civil rights-era singer who responded to the Southern murders of blacks with the mischievous “show tune,” as she called it, “Mississippi Goddam.” And Christina Ham’s “Nina Simone: Four Women” is hardly a feel-good celebration at Arena Stage. It’s unapologetically argumentative.
The blasted wreckage of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963 is the setting for this gripping play with music, and it’s the ideal frame for the simmering, imperious fury of Harriett D. Foy as Simone. Foy prowls the ruins of Timothy Mackabee’s set — which achieves a monumental scale in its huge shattered stained-glass Jesus — like a tiger on the hunt. Foy plants her feet firmly on the Kreeger stage, cocks a hip proudly as she debates with the three other black women haunting the hallowed ground. She speaks in needles: the consonants pierce, the vowels sting.
When Foy sings and performs the African-influenced dances by choreographer Lady Dane Figueroa Edidi, she sometimes doubles over as though she’s channeling centuries of agony. It’s not just that the voice rises in hot sweeping passion, although it does, especially as catapulted by the piano accompaniment by music director Darius Smith. The notable thing about this performance is the way Foy captures Simone’s dry-eyed venom.
If you know Simone’s song “Four Women” then you can see where Ham’s meditation is headed. The theme is what to do in the face of ongoing racist atrocities, and for a while the aggressive, smartly dressed Simone (whom we first glimpse as a nightclub singer crooning from “Porgy and Bess”) debates Sarah, a conservative, bewildered woman from an older generation. Theresa Cunningham captures the earthy wariness and punchline humor of this figure, just as, in their turns, Toni L. Martin passionately articulates the complex position of the educated, yellow-skinned Sephronia (who’s working with Martin Luther King Jr.) and Felicia Curry conveys the battered, bartered violence of the streetwise Sweet Thing.
So yes, the script can be diagrammatic. But the civil rights-era how shall we resist arguments still slice into the audience, as do the intermittent musical performances of what Simone called her “black classical music.” Songs include her anthem (with Weldon Irvine) “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” and the harried “Sinnerman,” a spiritual chase that interrupts the dialogues with a surge of rhythm and melody. Foy’s Simone-like rendition of “Mississippi Goddam” and the ensemble’s slow-burning turns through “Four Women” are dramatic knockouts.
Director Timothy Douglas sustains a righteous, inquisitive tone that brings out the best in Ham’s script. This isn’t comfort food. It’s a show with bloody knuckles.
Nina Simone: Four Women, by Christina Ham. Directed by Timothy Douglas. Costumes, Kara Harmon; lights, Michael Gilliam; sound design, Matthew M. Nielson. About an hour and 45 minutes. Through Dec. 24 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Tickets $40-$111, subject to change. Call 202-488-3300 or visit arenastage.org.