KCRep’s “Nina Simone: Four Women” Is a Powerful Reflection on the Violent Injustices Black Women Face in America

An actress playing Nina Simone sings in a spotlight surrounded by other Black women.

The cast of Nina Simone: Four Women (Don Ipock)

Nina Simone’s iconic song “Four Women” is told from the point of view of four characters, each representing a different stereotype Black women have been forced to inhabit. For centuries, Black women have been viewed by white American society as being both unfeminine and hypersexual, back-breakingly strong and also too angry—a maze of conflicting stereotypes that refuse to acknowledge not just their individuality but their very humanity.

This song is the basis for the play of the same name, currently running at KC Rep’s downtown Copaken stage, a frequent setting for the company’s most intriguing, challenging, and more experimental new works. Written by Christina Ham, this is a new revised version of her play, produced in collaboration with Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, and masterfully directed by Malkia Stampley.

Four Women is set on the day the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama was bombed by white supremacist terrorists, killing four little Black girls—Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair. Simone did famously write what she’d later call her “first civil rights song” in the direct aftermath of the bombing, but the setting feels less literal than it does metaphorical, even psychological, as Simone (Alexis J. Roston) struggles to turn her anger and pain into an anthem for the Civil Rights movement.

The women who visit Simone are Aunt Sarah (Gabrielle Lott-Rogers), Sephronia (Toni Martin), and Sweet Thing (Brittney Mack), each on a fiercely moving personal journey. They speak of themselves and they speak of tragedy and anger, but mostly they talk about Nina about her music—about its power and its potential, both realized and unfulfilled. The women call her out for not doing more, pushing her to be active in the movement and to stop catering to white audiences.

Four Women is not a biopic but an emotional, psychological exploration of Nina Simone’s place in history. it is more a “play with music,” as Ham describes it, than a musical, and the women sing Simone’s songs together as they dissect them. Each of the women on stage gives a commendable performance (as does Matthew Harris as Simone’s brother Sam Wayman, a silent, supportive presence throughout) but together, their energy and the harmonies these women create are transcendent. 

Every design element fuels the show’s powerful overall effect. Each of Yvonne L. Miranda’s costumes is a perfect encapsulation of the characters, reflecting the archetype they represent without feeling caricaturish. Scenic designer Shaun L. Motley has created a gorgeous townhouse for Simone to inhabit, whose rich curtains open onto the aftermath of the bombing, bringing that devastation literally to Simone’s doorstep and beyond.

The walls of Simone’s home are filled with portraits of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and other important figures of the Civil Rights movement of the time (as well as the photos of the four little girls killed that day). Those same walls also hold photos of faces of the modern fight for civil rights and the war on Black lives—faces like Breonna Taylor and George Floyd—silently but effectively emphasizing the play’s tragic relevance today.

Nina Simone: Four Women is a reflection not just on one iconic woman’s place in history, but on the injustices imposed on Black women throughout this country’s history. A phenomenal cast, impressive technical designs, and powerful music all result in a thought-provoking, thrilling piece of theatre.

“Nina Simone: Four Women” runs at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre (Copaken Stage, 1 H&R Block Way) through March 3. For more information, visit kcrep.org.

Vivian Kane

Vivian Kane is a writer living in Kansas City. She covers pop culture and politics for a national audience at The Mary Sue and theatre and film locally, with bylines in The Pitch. She has an MFA in Theatre from CalArts.

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