Music

Stripping Nina’s legacy down

Nina

BROKEN church: Lerato Mvelase is the domestic maid character, with Busisiwe Lurayi in the background and Bryan Mtsweni at the piano. Photograph by Iris Dawn Parker.

SHE WAS ONE of black America’s iconic figures during the turbulent 1960s. And her songs were grist for the protest mill. But that wasn’t all. You think Nina Simone (1933-2003) – born Eunice Waymon – and you think of the wealth of beauty and subtlety, nuance and fire that her songs from 1954, represented to music and to popular culture, all over the world. Even if you don’t know her history as a gifted classical pianist. As you sit in the audience of Nina Simone: Four Women, you feel your heart breaking around the mercilessly one-dimensional representation of what Nina meant to posterity. She was so much more than an enraged social activist.

On one level, this show is a mystery: if the cast members are immensely strong vocally, which they are, why on earth should they be forced to act? What you get is wonderfully performed songs interspersed with American anti-racist rhetoric phrased at the time of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963. This attack by members of the white supremacist group, the Ku Klux Klan killed four teenaged black girls, setting the world on fire with fury.

Interspersing Nina Simone into the morass is historically logical: this was the context in which her anger spilled from her heart and into her music, but as the work unfolds, offering four types of black women at the time – the Nina character (Busisiwe Lurayi), a domestic maid (Lerato Mvelase), a coloured woman (Noxolo Dlamin) and a harlot (Mona Monyane Skenjana) – the plot is muddied and ideals skirt with fact offering a work which simply tries to do too much, and fails. Are the four women meant to represent aspects of Simone? Her personal history is present in the script, but it is delivered in such shouty monotones, you lose much of it.

In a sense, the marketing of the work feels dishonest: you see the words “Nina Simone: Four Women” and expect a glorious revue of Simone’s magnificent songs, including the eponymous classic Four Women (1968) which took the world by its heart and never let go.

Instead, you have screeched pamphleteering delivered with no nuance by the four. The sound is often so ridiculously ramped up that the words are actually lost. And while the bold and clean set offers a sense of order disrupted in the context of a church, it is the fiddly bits of audio-visual elements and two vocal performers in formal Alabama costume squeezed in at the corner that hurts the piece further.

The music is wonderful, but alas, there is far too little of it, offering instead pure rage. It’s a great pity. Rage is always a cipher of a period such as the one under the loupe: a means to an end. This production takes the rage front and centre and eventually, your attention wanes.

It’s a lost opportunity, particularly for young audience members who do not know Simone’s legacy or her work.

  • Nina Simone: Four Women is written by Christina Horn and directed by James Ngcobo. Featuring creative input by Tshepo Mngoma (musical direction), Mandla Mtshali (lighting), Ntuthuko Mbuyazi (sound), Jurgen Meekel (audio visual), Nadya Cohen (set) and Onthatile Matshidiso (costumes), it is performed by Noxolo Dlamini, Busisiwe Lurayi, Lerato Mvelase and Mona Monyane Skenjana accompanied by Sam Ibeh, Mpho Kodisang, Ezbie Moilwa, Tebogo Mokoena, Bryan Mtsweni and Smanga Ngubane at the John Kani Theatre, Market Theatre complex, in Newtown, Johannesburg, until February 24. Call 011 832 1641.
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