When Nina Simone heard about the bombing death of four young girls at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963, she famously went to her garage and tried to build a zip gun to take out her anger on someone. When her husband suggested that her music would be a more effective weapon, she wrote "Mississippi Goddam," a politically charged song that declared, "Lord have mercy on this land of mine / we all gonna get it in due time." When she released the song in 1964, it contained this curious, spoken aside: "This is a show tune, but the show hasn't been written for it yet."
Now that show has been written. Christina Ham's "Nina Simone: Four Women" includes "Mississippi Goddam" and other examples of Simone's social-activist songs from the 1960s. But the play with music, starting Nov. 10 at Arena Stage, is named after Simone's "Four Women." That song has Simone characterizing four African American women by their skin color: Aunt Sarah, a black-skinned woman who works as a manual laborer; Sephronia, a yellow-skinned daughter of a white rapist and a black mother; Sweet Thing, a tan-colored prostitute; and Peaches, a brown-skinned radical bent on revenge.
These four women become the primary characters in Ham's play, with the figure of Simone substituting for Peaches. In this fantasia, they meet in the rubble-filled 16th Street Baptist Church on the day of the bombing while rioting is going on outside. They debate what the response to this attack should be, and their different answers (Sarah wants to get to her job as a domestic; Sephronia wants to march with Martin Luther King Jr.; Sweet Thing wants to move to Chicago; and Simone wants to attack someone) lead to arguments about class, sex, religion, politics and skin color.
When Minnesota's Park Square Theatre approached Ham about writing a show on Simone, she replied, "Fine, as long as it's not a biopic or a jukebox musical."
"I didn't want to get into the abusive husband and her mental problems. There's no way to do that justice and still do a play focused enough for people to hold on to," Ham says by phone from New York.
Simone had grown up as Eunice Waymon in segregated Tryon, N.C. She was recognized as a piano prodigy early on, and her mother's white employer sponsored lessons for the girl who dreamed of becoming the first black classical concert pianist. That dream was dashed when she was denied admission to Philadelphia's Curtis Institute, and she adopted the stage name of Nina Simone to make money doing show tunes in Atlantic City.
She adapted jazz, blues, folk, gospel, pop and show tunes to her sui generis style of elegant piano and vocals. When Simone became more political, she pioneered an black take on Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht cabaret; she even turned that team's "Pirate Jenny" into an American protest song.
"I tried to choose songs that were part of the activist part of her life, even if the songs were written three or four years after the action in the play," Ham says. "If I had been real strict about chronology, it would have been just one song: 'Mississippi Goddam.' "
Ham's mother attended the 16th Street Baptist Church as a child and even saw Eleanor Roosevelt and Langston Hughes speak there. Simone's records were part of Ham's mother's collection, and Ham can't remember a time when she didn't know who Simone was.
"I think any black woman has felt like all four of these women at different parts of her life," Ham says. "Here in New York, you feel like you have to put your armor on before you go outside; you have to be Peaches. At other times, you feel like Sarah, because you're always taking care of other people. Nina was really hurt that black radio wouldn't play 'Mississippi Goddam.' She wasn't trying to be mean. She was trying to tell a truth that we weren't talking about."
Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. 202-488-3300. arenastage.org.
Dates: Nov. 10-Dec. 24.