I had it in my mind to go out and kill someone,” Nina Simone wrote in her memoir. “I didn’t know who, but someone I could identify as being in the way of my people.” On September 15, 1963, the KKK had bombed 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama and killed four black girls. Simone instead directed her rage into “Mississippi Goddam,” an aurally jaunty, lyrically scalding protest piece she rendered in her inimitable voice, able to at once hurt and heal: “This whole country is full of lies / You’re all gonna die and die like flies.”
Nina Simone: Four Women sees its West Coast premiere April 26 at Seattle Repertory Theatre. Valerie Curtis-Newton, a local director and head of directing at the University of Washington School of Drama, helms Christina Ham’s musical (first produced in 2016), which is staged in the “semblance of the ruins”—physical, cultural, metaphorical—of that Birmingham church. It takes its name from the protest song “Four Women” that Simone released two years after the bombing. The play’s titular quartet—Nina Simone (“Peaches” in the song), Sarah, Sephronia, Sweet Thing—embodies what Curtis-Newton calls “different facets of black womanhood.” They meet in the bombing’s wake, Simone breaks into occasional song, and they contend with what the era means to them collectively and individually. Questions—still pertinent—surround and propel the play. Is art a viable form of activism? If so, is it constructive to focus on tragedy? Might such art prompt only armchair activism? Might theatergoers come, witness, feel indignant and virtuous, and do nothing?
“I think there’s a real danger,” Curtis-Newton says about the last point. “But the alternative is to remain silent, which feels more unacceptable to me. I feel like what my work does is it eliminates the excuse ‘I didn’t know.’ Once you know, what you do about that is a test of your integrity and your values.”
Or, as Simone’s character says in the play, “This country’s been lulled to sleep on feel-good songs. I need to create music that will wake people up.”
This April, Donald Byrd, artistic director of Spectrum Dance Theater, invokes that same metaphor—awakening—with the Wokeness Festival, a three-part contemporary dance series. It begins with Shot, a piece Byrd premiered in 2017 at Seattle Rep that contends with police violence against black Americans, something that, even when it isn’t making headlines, persists. Next comes Dance, Dance, Dance #2, a mixed bill centered on the work of Merce Cunningham.
Finally, on April 25, the day before Nina Simone: Four Women opens, Spectrum premieres Strange Fruit—a new piece named after the Abel Meeropol song, which renders lynching in the metaphor of “strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.” Billie Holiday performed a famous version. So did Nina Simone.
In 2018, to research the work, Byrd visited the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. From the ceiling hang over 800 steel columns engraved with the names of thousands of black Americans murdered by lynching. Byrd grew up in the segregated South of the 1950s and 1960s. “I think many people—black people and white people—don’t know the extent that lynching was used as a way of terrorizing black people…up until the ’70s.” So he’s invoking “Strange Fruit”—a song still known—to draw people into a performance that interrogates what it means to remain conscious of the country’s legacy of racism and its contemporary manifestations. An abstracted tree will dominate the stage, “something from hell,” he says.
The effect, he hopes, achieved through dance’s visceral connection, is constructive discomfort. Byrd says that’s “the unstated goal of what I do. I want people to lean into that discomfort.” He thinks that’s especially important in progressive communities. “My experience in Seattle has been people go, ‘Oh I got it. I’m aware. I know what’s going on.’ And that’s it. It kind of stops there.”
Byrd’s project, a renewed attention, even manifests in the title. The Wokeness Festival—it clunks. You may roll your eyes at the self-labeling. “Wokeness” is pervasive, a meme. It now comes with a comet’s tail of self-righteousness and the attendant snark. But in the festival title, the term’s flatness mimics the way we become inured—to another police shooting, to the long history of lynching.
What Four Women and Strange Fruit ask is simple: Engage the actual metaphor. The work is not to awaken and remain forever conscious, but to find yourself again asleep and to again rise—from your complacency, from your theater seat—and do something.
► Nina Simone: Four Women, April 26–June 2, Seattle Repertory Theatre
► The Wokeness Festival, April 8–28, Washington Hall