Article by: Xabiso Vili
NINA SIMONE: FOUR WOMEN PREMIERE
We’re in downtown Johannesburg as the sun sets and a few recyclers pick up the final tins for recycling in Newtown. Children donned in school uniform catch the last trickling taxis back home. The red carpet is spun outside of The Market Theatre. People outfitted in rolling dresses and open collar shirts, paired with perilous heels and cosy sneakers meander in, give their name at the desk and disappear into the behemoth theatre venue, sporting tickets to tonight’s show. Tonight is the premiere of Nina Simone: Four Women, a play by African American playwright Christina Ham. Ham, has an illustrious career and was named one of the top 20 most produced playwrights of the 2018 – 2019 season by American Theatre magazine.
The sun disappears and the audience thickens as those who know a cast or production member arrive with their pre-prepared bouquets. The photography is scattered, selfies are shared and professional photographers work in between the crowd and in front of The Market Theatre and US Mission banners. This particular run of Nina Simone: Four Women, was made possible through collaboration between SAfm, The Market Theatre and the US Mission as part of the Market Theatre and the Mission’s ongoing five-year collaboration for Black History Month. Awkward cheek-to-cheek hugs are shared out and forgotten midway. Dr John Kani arrives at the same time as a group of girls from a well-known Johannesburg all-girls’ school and the flash photography begins in earnest.
The excitement in the air is as palpable as the heat. Slight, withheld gasps of the names of favourite celebrities domino amongst the groups of schoolchildren and they shyly shuffle to get their pictures taken with some of their heroes. The adults are more poised and ask for their selfies with certainty and resolve. The courtyard in-between The Market Theatre and Outies is almost overflowing when the bell finally rings inviting everybody inside. Those who have not yet received their tickets scamper to the tables or the box office, whilst the rest take their turn on the red carpet.
The foyer of the market theatre is full to bursting with voices and laughter that crescendo on top of each other. There is a microphone and speakers set up and before the show starts, everyone braces themselves for the words of welcome and address. The Market Theatre’s CEO, Ismail Mahomed, gets on stage to welcome everybody and introduces the legend whom the showing theatre will be named after.
John Kani is as much a performer as ever, taking his audience through anecdote after anecdote but delivering poignant insight. He transports us to times when Young, Gifted and Black was the anthem they started and ended black consciousness meetings with. He reminds us of how the arts can build a bridge across the Atlantic and reminisces of the time Nina Simone came looking for him to take her to Mama Miriam Makeba. He is applauded off stage and Mahomed invites the US Embassy’s Minister Counselor for Public Affairs, Craig Dicker, to regale the audience with the necessity of this collaboration and why putting on this play, in particular, was so necessary for this Black History Month. “This performance marks the opening of the 7th collaboration between us and Market Theatre, and the 3rd consecutive year we have brought a play by a leading African American author to South Africa for Black History Month,” Dicker says. He speaks back to the Market Theatre’s history of struggle and finally calls for the opening of the theatre doors.
The audience is abuzz as they take their seats and the lights dim. The piece starts off with intense Christian imagery and the pianist playing the opening chords to Wild is the Wind at an old, beaten piano. The religious imagery, calming music and singing are broken by crashing sounds and the audience is brought into 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, post the 1963 bombings. Nina Simone, played by Busisiwe Lurayi, is on stage working with the pianist trying to write a new song. The play is not a Nina Simone biopic, instead, it details the moments that lead up to the creation of the song Mississippi Goddamn. The music is an undercurrent throughout the whole play, used expertly in certain segments – it doesn’t overshadow the story but weaves its way in and out of the conversations with the four women.
The title itself is taken from Nina Simone’s own song where she describes four different women. These women are brought to life on stage. From Peaches (Busisiwe Lurayi) who is trying to find her way from the role of artist to radical activist and still experiences a distance between her and her audience; to Aunt Sarah (Lerato Mvelase), the quintessential Mammie trying to make her way back to work for her white masters despite the riots; then Sephronia (Noxolo Dlamini), the light-skinned middle-class activist school teacher who subscribes to the teachings of Martin Luther King Jr but still has to fight to validate her blackness and finally, Sweet Thing (Mona Monyane-Skenjane) who is deeply aware of her sexuality and has been taught to always be on the offensive. She tries to meander on the outskirts of the revolution but is also aware of her place in it.
These women grapple with each other and their place in history at this moment. They all respond to the deaths of the four little girls differently but each comes to terms with themselves and tries to heal. The piece takes its time to develop and each actress immerses herself deeply into their character, working hard for each one not to turn into yet another stereotype. The set and AV projections do an amazing job of holding the story together; they are works of art that are used to erase and emphasise different narratives at different moments. The tension ebbs and flows, the humour is coupled with moments of intense emotionality and women across generations are placed in the here and now. The audience rises to deliver a rousing standing ovation after the last song has been sung.
James Ngcobo has crafted and directed a piece that creates conversation, remembers an icon and commemorates a difficult time. Ham’s writing is poignant and Ngcobo’s direction matches it superbly. It is a classic Market Theatre headliner and deals well with contemporary issues despite being transposed to an era and locale a lifetime away. After the show, the schoolchildren walk out humming their favourite Nina Simone songs. Laughter is heard as audience members recite their favourite lines outside the John Kani Theatre. The night stretches on and someone cries “Power!”.
Nina Simone: Four Women will be on at The Market Theatre until the 24th of February with showings at 20:00 from Monday to Sunday, and 15:00 on Sundays.