Shontina Vernon as Nina Simone.
Shontina Vernon as Nina Simone.

‘Nina Simone: Four Women’ runs through June 2 in the Bagley Wright Theater at Seattle Repertory Theatre. For tickets or information, contact the Seattle Rep box office at 206-443-2222 or seattlerep.org.

At 10:22 a.m. on Sept. 15, 1963, the Ku Klux Klan set off a bomb in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The explosion sprayed mortar and bricks from the front of the building, caved in walls, and filled the interior with smoke.

Beneath piles of debris in the church basement, the dead bodies of four girls were discovered—Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, and Carole Robertson, all age 14, and Denise McNair, 11. 

In the aftermath of the bombing, supper-club darling, singer/pianist Nina Simone was so enraged that she switched her singing career from jazz style into Civil Rights-activist mode. One of her new songs was “Four Women.”

Playwright Christina Ham was so moved by the song, she conceived and created the musical “Nina Simone: Four Women.” She weaves Simone’s musical activism and the unrest after the church bombing with an imagined meeting of the four women from Simone’s song. Valerie Curtis-Newton makes her directing bow at Seattle Rep.

In Ham’s play, four black women come together, at odds with each other until they realize their strength will come from finding common ground.

“Nina Simone: Four Women” opens with Simone in her elegant black evening gown in front of the stage curtain, singing her first hit, “I Loves You, Porgy,” from George Gershwin’s musical “Porgy and Bess.” Then, mid-song, a sharp explosion pierces the theater. The stage curtains part, revealing the devastation inside the church.

Over the course of the next 100 minutes, one by one, three black women enter the church; Aunt Sarah, Safronia, Sweet Thing and Peaches/Simone describe themselves in the first person. Wounded, they all harbor a tragic incident from their past.

There are plot contrivances and an occasional lagging pace. But it doesn’t matter. What does matter, thanks to the outstanding actors and their glorious music, is that the message prevails.

After a spectacular opening, the play’s action moves into the ruinous rubble of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church; walls blown apart, pages of hymn books strewn about. And the huge cross leans precariously against the balcony rail. 

Aunt Sarah (the glorious Shaunyce Omar), an older housemaid who works two jobs, embodies the enslavement of black people and the pain and suffering her race has had to endure. Her cleaning uniform may have a layer of dirt on the hem, but her beauty beams brightly during her soulful rendition of “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” a personal favorite of this critic. 

Next comes Sephronia (Britney Nicole Simpson). A teacher and devoted follower of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., she bears battle scars from beatings and brutality experienced during marches and protests. She also bears the burden of being mixed race — known as high-yellow in black circles. A child of rape, she lives between two worlds, unaccepted in both. When she sings, her powerful and passionate voice soars throughout the bombed-out church. This critic was convinced it was heard by the Almighty.

Last to arrive is the angry, embittered tan streetwalker, Sweet Thing (Porscha Shaw), who sells herself to survive. Brash and bold, she wreaks frustration and anger, haunted by people being beaten and oppressed because their skin color is different.

As Simone, Shontina Vernon moves effortlessly through genres, including gospel, blues, jazz, folk, classical, and even European classical. Probably her biggest mark, however, was on the genre of protest songs. She brings to life Simone’s untrained vocal chops, a perfect blend of rough growl and smooth straight-tone, conveying feelings of heartache.

Sixth of eight children in a poor family, Nina Simone was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Tryon, North Carolina. Her father was a handyman, while her mother was a minister and housemaid. A musical prodigy, young Eunice began playing at 2 1/2. Her first? “God Be With You, Till We Meet Again.”

A brilliant classical pianist, her dreams of being a concert performer were shattered because of her skin color. Rather than let herself be defined by this trauma, she triumphed by creating music that is both liberating and soul-wrenching. One journalist wrote, “While Nina’s battle with her blackness came to define her, she ultimately used it to prove that black can be beautiful and bold within society’s whitewashed standards.”

In the ruins of the church, Simone is trying to write her first civil rights song, “Mississippi Goddam.” She cynically describes the song as “a show tune, but the show hasn’t been written for it yet.”

Each of the four women has a different perspective.

Aunt Sarah puts her faith in God. Sephronia (usually spelled “Saffronia” in the song’s lyric) wants to march for change. Sweet Thing is getting it while she can. Vernon triumphs in the role of Nina/Peaches. She exudes confidence and control, even when she is being opposed. Angry and determined, she sells Simone’s songs with charismatic ease.

The songs bring the characters together, including Simone’s “Sinnerman” and “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” a tribute to Lorraine’s Hansberry’s play of the same name, the hymns “His Eye is on the Sparrow” and “God Be With You ‘Til We Meet Again,” and “Mississippi Goddam” and “Four Women,” of course.

It’s been 56 years since those four young girls were murdered by white supremacists, and the heartwrenching memory remains.

Simone turned the civil rights movement into music and became one of the most outspoken and influential musicians during that time. Although she passed in 2005, her musical voice continues to inspire and influence.