Nina Simone strikes fire in her music

A woman is sitting at a piano in a church sanctuary. She can smell bitter smoke and hear voices batter outside like gunshots. Four young girls died here yesterday morning because white men lit 19 sticks of dynamite and exploded a worship service.

At the center of the devastation, she is alone with a pencil and paper and her driving grief and anger and fear at a world where this can happen and the newspapers won’t even print their names. ‘Why don’t you see it? Why don’t you feel it? I don’t know. I. don’t. know.

They are gone, Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair and Carole Robertson, all 14, and Cynthia Wesley, only 11. Addie’s sister Susan is blind. And now the city is tearing apart. It’s September 16, 1963, and Nina Simone has come to the 16th Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. She is trying for the first time to write her own song. And tonight three more women will come into the church for shelter in the storm and reshape each other’s lives.

A cast of nationally acclaimed actors and musicians — Darlesia Cearcy as Aunt Sarah, Najah Hetsberger as Sweet Thing, Sasha Hutchings as Sophronia and Felicia Curry as Nina Simone — will perform in Nina Simone: Four Women by Christina Ham, with Berkshire Theatre Group through September 5.

Najah Hetsberger, known in the Berkshires from Berkshire Theatre Group's acclaimed production of 'Godspell,' performs as Sweet Thing in 'Nina Simone: Four Women.' Press photo courtesy of BTG
Photo by Jacey Rae Russell

Najah Hetsberger, known in the Berkshires from Berkshire Theatre Group's acclaimed production of 'Godspell,' performs as Sweet Thing in 'Nina Simone: Four Women.' Press photo courtesy of BTG

“Nina is trying to use her music as a catalyst for change,” Curry said, sitting onstage with the cast before a rehearsal. She has performed extensively in the Washington D.C. area, from Ford’s Theatre to the Kennedy Center, and won acclaim for her role in Queens Girl: Back in the Green Mountains Everyman Theatre in Baltimore.

On this stage, she is composing at the center of a national movement. On that September day, Birmingham had been a focus of Martin Luther King’s desegregation campaign since the spring. The city had jailed children. Bombs had destroyed a motel where Martin Luther King, Jr. had been staying, his brother’s house and the house of NAACP attorney Arthur Shores. After months of protests, the city had finally agreed to desegregate lunch counters, restrooms and drinking fountains. And now this.

“Nina comes in desperate, aching, sad,” Curry said, “trying to find this world between music and activism that she so wants to find. The Nina we all know and love (rose) out of that birth. And she really does. The birth that happens in this play is because of her meeting with these women, and what they realize, and how that affects her.”

The first woman to walk into the shattered building is a member of the church. She and her family know the girls who died yesterday, and she is terrified for her own children. She is weeping as she picks up pages from a damaged Bible. Cearcy, known among many roles for her Broadway performance as Ezrulie, Goddess of Love, in the Tony-winning revival of Once on this Island, plays Aunt Sarah, who works as a maid for a white family and comes in raw from the blast of a fire hose.

Acclaimed Broadway actor and vocalist Darlesia Cearcy performs as Aunt Sarah in Berkshire Theatre Group's 'Nina Simone: Four Women,' 2021. Press photo courtesy of BTG
Photo by Jacey Rae Russell

Acclaimed Broadway actor and vocalist Darlesia Cearcy performs as Aunt Sarah in Berkshire Theatre Group's 'Nina Simone: Four Women,' 2021. Press photo courtesy of BTG

Sarah “has been up against the world because of her skin color,” Cearcy says, “always getting the scraps, sacrificing herself for others’ well-being, and she is in search of her own sense of belonging and equality in several different areas of her life among her community, among the community at large.”

She doesn’t expect to find a singer from New York jazz clubs sitting here under the broken stained glass window. Sarah has never met a woman who has played piano from her early childhood— a woman who studied with the support of her hometown and makes a living through her music, who plays classical, jazz, blues, rock and R&B, gospel and soul with equal fluency.

Even though Sarah can soar high into the chorus of His Eye is On the Sparrow with a voice that can fill the whole body of this broken building, how can she answer a woman telling her to do something to change this chaos, when she could lose her job for being late today — or how can she answer an activist on the front lines?

From Dr. Martin Luther King’s Project Confrontation comes a protester at the center of the storm. Sasha Hutchings — an original cast member of Hamilton and appeared on Broadway as Laurey Williams in the 2019 Tony awardwinning revival of Oklahoma! — appears tonight as Sophronia, a survivor of arrests, beatings and rage … from more than one direction.

Sophronia is a fair, light-skinned Black woman, Hutchings said, and the play takes on the privilege and challenge that brings. Like Nina, Sophronia has been able to make choices, even when they have been hard.
“She has volunteered, she’s been a part of marches, she’s very dedicated and involved in the Civil Rights movement … Her reasons for being there, I think, are as much about her belief in what she is fighting for as a way to cope with her past, and it’s a place of refuge.”

They are all trying to find a safe place, even for a night.

“I think we’re important that we are in a church,” Hutchings said, “and that these women come to this place sometimes seeking shelter, in the case of Aunt Sarah, seeking clarity, in the case of Nina. We’re in the midst of riots, and there’s a lot of violence in the streets, and where you’d run for safety is a church, and it has been bombed. It’s not safe.”

Sweet Thing comes into the bombed-out building looking for artifacts she can sell, said Najah Hetsberger, known in the Berkshires for BTG’s groundbreaking production of Godspell last summer, the first musical to earn Actors Equity approval to open in the pandemic.

“And whether that valuable item might get her in trouble, she does not care,” she said. “She’s not sorry about any of her decisions. She’s lived a hard life, and I think because of that she bluntly speaks the truth, and she is unapologetic.”

She balances pain and bravado in a young woman who has always been alone. Sweet Thing doesn’t walk into the room looking for change, Hetsberger said. She comes in raging to confront Sophronia over a rivalry she doesn’t understand. And talking with Nina troubles her in ways she doesn’t expect.

“She starts to relate back to her past and starts to understand it more. Nina and Sweet Thing have this relationship where it’s like, I see you.”

All four women learn from each other — striking out, challenging, mentoring, enlarging. Joining in this conversation, Sarah finds new confidence.

“It allows her to understand more about what protest is,” Cearcy said, “about what loving herself actually means.”

And Nina too comes out of this space changed, Curry said.

“What she wanted to do was write a song that was going to change the world. I think what has been changed is her inner self. She’s writing this song to help everyone else, and these conversations get her to go through that change on the inside. Things she couldn’t say out loud about herself, about her situation, about her past, these women get that out of her.

“So I will say the change becomes an even bigger desperation to have this song … be heard, for Medgar, for the young ladies and for everyone else — ‘… all I want is equality for my sister, my brother, my people and me.’

Medgar Evans, the NAACP’s first field secretary for Mississippi, had been assassinated in June, 1963, three months before. And here in Birmingham she builds chords into a driving rhythm. They stride in an insistent beat.

Acclaimed Broadway actor and vocalist Darlesia Cearcy performs as Aunt Sarah in Berkshire Theatre Group's 'Nina Simone: Four Women,' 2021. Press photo courtesy of BTG
Photo by Jacey Rae Russell

Acclaimed Broadway actor and vocalist Darlesia Cearcy performs as Aunt Sarah in Berkshire Theatre Group's 'Nina Simone: Four Women,' 2021. Press photo courtesy of BTG

Alabama’s got me so upset …

Until she’s standing on the piano, calling to the crowd, and her voice is deep and cracking like thunder.

It’s time to do your best,
stand up and be counted with all the rest —
because everybody knows about Mississippi — Goddamn!

Curry feels her determination to change the future, for her own child.

“That’s why there’s this desperation,” she said, “because it’s not just about us, it’s about what we leave, and we have to leave it better. We have to do better for them.”

“We’re all midwives,” Cearcy said, “because we’re trying to birth a new reality.”

“And the music,” Curry said — “we talked about this last night — music is the universal language, and it truly does not matter if you are rich, if you are poor, if you are black, if you are white. It does not matter. music speaks to all of us. And I think it’s one of the reasons Nina loved it so much and believed so much that it could make a change, because she knew everyone could hear it in their own way and be moved by it.”

“I think it’s the power of theater,” Hutchings said. “These things are toxic in real life. They’re hard to engage with in real life. And theater has always been a place — live performance, art has always been a place — where you can take one step back. Try a thing on, try on a new perspective, a new argument, a new vision, a new way of looking at things. And hold it in your hand. Hold it in your brain. Take it home if you want, put it down for a second, come back to it.

“That’s why we do this. Go across the street, take a peek, engage with the thing and hold it — hold it softly, but hold it and see what happens.”

By the Way Berkshires is a digital magazine exploring creative life and community — art and performance, food and the outdoors — and I’m writing it for you, with local voices, because I’ve gotten to know this rich part of the world as a writer and journalist, and I want to share it with you.

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