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Posts Tagged Nina Simone: Four Women

Sitting in the Dark with Students

It happened again the other day. As an usher, I got to watch Nina Simone: Four Women with predominantly students of color in the Boss Stage, and any squirming in the seats stopped once they figured out that this play is special. The characters on stage talk about racism, colorism, feminism and the toll but also strength of facing all the -isms on a daily basis in the frank way that’s not permitted in polite society. Finally, someone is openly articulating aspects of the truth of their daily experiences, and they can relate. They lean forward to watch and listen, fully engaged.

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It’s not always this way when I watch a play with students. One of my very first experiences as an usher was to witness rows of predominantly white students from a suburban school laugh throughout an intense scene of the teenage Esperanza in anguish from having been assaulted in The House on Mango Street. This seemed not to be nervous, but mocking, laughter. That was frightening to behold for me and, from what I could tell by their faces, the cast as well. This was the same school group from whence a student addressed me as, “Hey, Hiroshima!” to get my attention to make a request (which I did not grant).

There are also times when students seem to talk a lot during a play. More often than not, such a group may be first-timers to live theatre, only having watched shows on television. They are, thus, used to being able to openly comment as a performance unfolds. But there are also first-time theatre-going groups that are so captivated by the play’s reality that they will, for instance, as a group of Hmong students did last season, all turn their heads to look when Anne, in The Diary of Anne Frank, points beyond their heads at an imaginary sky. Regardless of how first-timers react, we feel privileged that they’ve chosen Park Square to be their first exposure to live theatre.

Coming to a performance at Park Square Theatre is an educational experience for school groups, not only in the academic sense but also in the life-learning sense.  They come face to face with social issues but also with themselves–who they are and who they want to become. The latter may involve gaining personal perspective on respectful engagement or even the discovery of a new passion to pursue.

Sitting in the dark with students in a theatre is, more often than not, a rewarding experience. You know that the young audience member who comes out may not be the same person who’d gone in. As an usher, it makes me lean forward and pay attention, fully engaged.

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What’s Missing?

In an interview with Park Square Theatre, feature writer Matt DiCintio asked Christina Ham, the playwright of Nina Simone: Four Women, “Many audience members, especially younger generations, may not be aware of the role musicians like Simone played in the Civil Rights Movement. Why do you feel it’s important that we don’t forget them?”

Regina Marie Williams as Nina Simone (Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)

Regina Marie Williams as Nina Simone
(Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)

As part of her reply, Christina stated, “Until 1970, Ms. Simone’s music was such a substantial part of the movement, but after this she was basically pushed into relative obscurity. Books on the Civil Rights Movement don’t even index her or discuss how critical she was to the movement.”

In conversations with audience members who had seen Nina Simone for the first time either last or this season, I often found some to have come expecting lighter fare–namely, a replica of a nightclub act of favorite standards. Instead, they were surprised by the intensity of a production that digs deep into themes of racism, colorism, feminism and activism. The play ultimately leaves a strong impression and makes a powerful impact on its audiences by transcending the standard narratives and perspectives of mainstream history to create a more nuanced and complete truth.

In her interview with DiCintio, Christina also remarked how “this play shines a light on the black women who were and were not musicians during this movement who were often marginalized and forced into the background–even though we were the backbone of the movement.”

How would we see each other differently if credit were more often given where credit was due? For instance, what if the contributions of these and other women in black history had been made prominent? How would society evolve if more points of view do not get submerged, lost, hidden or erased?

This year alone, we have most starkly needed to rethink history in light of the revelation that brilliant black women working at NASA were also instrumental in launching astronaut John Glenn into space. The old narrative of the Space Race may have stayed intact if not for authors Margot Lee Shetterly, who wrote Hidden Figures, and Duchess Harris and Sue Bradford Edwards, who wrote Hidden Human Computers: The Black Women of NASA.

Revealing obscured or missing history has the power to create change. It changes how we see each other and how we see ourselves. It can prevent entrenchment in singular points of view and narrow ways of thinking or even cause a change of heart.

One thing is for certain. After seeing Nina Simone, you won’t come out thinking about the Civil Rights Movement in quite the same way as before.

 

Nina Simone: Four Women on the Boss Thrust Stage until March 5

 

Mississippi *@!!?*@!

by Vincent Hannam

One of the things I love most about writing and blogging (and consequently theatre as a whole) is the chance to broaden my education on all kinds of subjects that I had never either heard about or took the time to research. One of those subjects is Nina Simone as an artist and civil rights activist and her song “Mississippi Goddam” which, I’ll admit, I’d never heard until Park Square Theatre’s Nina Simone: Four Women. I began thinking about how a song from fifty-three years ago has succeeded so much in the face of so much turmoil. When I was reading into that signature song I saw this picture of the original album sleeve with the latter word bleeped out. Now that kind of title would bristle more than a few feathers today, so I can imagine the world of 1964 just losing its mind – probably more so in certain parts of the country than others, but lost minds nonetheless.

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That year Simone said to hell with it and released a song that was a direct attack on the social order of the South, where blacks were treated as a second-class citizens at best and out right murdered at worst. It was her response to a time in the early ’60s when the Civil Rights Movement was at an apex with the murder of Medgar Evers and the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing in 1963. For Simone, the song was her own turning point: she had had enough with the system and decided that this song and getting into the fight for racial equality was more important than pleasing her mostly white fans. Go ahead and listen to the song and really hear not just the lyrics, but the passion and cry for justice in her voice.

While the song became an anthem of the era, it was banned in several southern states who were able to use the profanity in the title as their excuse for not airing it. I have a hard time believing that even if the song was called, “Mississippi the Beautiful”, it would have found any widespread air play.

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It’s a shame because the people who needed to hear it the most were the ones unwilling or unable to do so. If there is any solace in this history it’s that the song has quite clearly lived on while segregation is now a thing of the past. I think this is a valuable lesson to anyone who tries to clamp down on expression and ideas, no matter how controversial. That you can’t silence a voice forever – it will always find a crack in the wall to seep it’s way through, getting to people and spreading slowly but surely. Nina Simone was that voice and while she had the fame to back her up, she has inspired countless others with zero notoriety to make their voices heard no matter what the censors might do to silence them.

Note: Nina Simone: Four Women has been extended through Sunday, March 5.

A Story in Numbers

Regina Marie Williams, Jamila Anderson and Aimee K. Bryant in Nina Simone: Four Women (Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)

Regina Marie Williams, Jamila Anderson and Aimee K. Bryant in Nina Simone: Four Women
(Photo by Michael Hanisch)

In Park Square Theatre’s Nina Simone: Four Women, which is set inside the heavily damaged 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, the presence of the four girls killed in the bombing is clearly felt, a powerful force that propels the four women together to tell their own stories. A fifth girl was with the four girls when the dynamite exploded, but she managed to survive the attack, though not without grave injuries. In Nina Simone, the tale of the four women are told through songs. The story of the girls, in contrast, can be told in stark numbers. Both accounts inform our nation’s history–its past, present and movement into the future.

Survivor Sarah Collins, 12 years old

Survivor Sarah Collins, 12 years old

1 Girl survived the bombing: Sarah Collins

3 Months in the hospital for Sarah Collins, who lost her right eye in the bombing

Top l to r: Adie Mae Collins (14) and Denise McNair (11) Bottom l to r: Carole Robertson (14) and Cynthia Wesley (14)

Top l to r: Adie Mae Collins (14) and Denise McNair (11)
Bottom l to r: Carole Robertson (14) and Cynthia Wesley (14)

4 Girls killed in the bombing: Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins and Denise McNair

4 Klansmen suspected in the bombing: Robert Chambliss, Bobby Frank Cherry, Herman Cash and Thomas E. Blanton, Jr.

6 Month jail sentence for Robert Chambliss and cleared of the murder charge

9 Month of the bombing: September

11 Years Old: Denise McNair

12 Years Old: Sarah Collins

14 Years Old: Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Addie Mae Collins

14 Years before Robert Chambliss was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment (1977) after Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley reopened the bombing case

15 Day of the bombing in September at 10:22 am; parishioners were listening to Reverend Arthur Price’s sermon, “A Love That Forgives”

15 Sticks of dynamite (from 122 sticks purchased by Robert Chambliss) planted in the church basement

16th Street Church bombing

16th Street Church bombing

16 th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, was bombed in 1963

20 Approximate other members of the congregation injured in the bombing

31 Years after the bombing when Herman Cash dies without conviction (1994)

33 Years after the bombing when the Matthews-Murkland Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, is set on fire as part of an 18-month stretch of arson directed at southern black churches (1996)

37 Years before Thomas E. Blanton, Jr. is convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment (2000)

39 Years before Bobby Frank Cherry is convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment (2002)

45 Years after the bombing when three white men in Springfield, Massachusetts, set ablaze the Macedonia Church of God in Christ hours after Obama’s inauguration (2008)

50 Years after the bombing when the five girls were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, one of the highest civilian honors in America; survivor Sarah Collins Rudolph initially declined to attend the ceremony (2013)

52 Years after the bombing when 21-year-old white supremist Dylan Roof kills 9 and injures 3 at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina (2015)

63 Year of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama

64 Year that Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act

68 Year that FBI chairman J. Edgar Hoover closed the bombing investigation without prosecutions nor filing charges

100 Dollars fine for Robert Chambliss in addition to the initial short 6-month jail sentence (until he was finally convicted in 1977)

200 Church members attending Sunday school classes when the dynamite went off at the 16th Street Baptist Church

8000 Approximate number of mourners that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed at a funeral for three of the girls (one girl’s family held a private funeral)

 

Jamil Jude, Artist Plus

Since December 2015, Jamil Jude has served as Park Square Theatre’s Artistic Programming Associate. As such, he is mentored by Artistic Director Richard Cook through the Leadership U[niversity] – One-on-One Program to foster the professional development of early-career, rising leaders of theatre. Jamil was only one of six exceptionally talented applicants awarded such a mentorship by Theatre Communications Group, the national organization formed to strengthen, nurture and promote professional nonprofit American theatre.

Jamil Jude with Alix Kendall on The BUZZ - Fox 9 to promote Nina Simone: Four Women at Park Square Theatre until March 5 (photo by Connie Shaver)

Jamil Jude with Alix Kendall on The BUZZ – Fox 9 to promote Nina Simone: Four Women at Park Square Theatre through March 5th
(photo by Connie Shaver)

While Jamil may be most visible to our audiences as the facilitator for post-show discussions, such as the upcoming Sunday, February 19, Musings for Nina Simone: Four Women or most recently as a promoter of Nina on Fox 9 with Alix Kendall, his work at Park Square, Jamil explained, “is really focused on advancing our broader inclusivity goals.”

“Richard began the work by expanding Park Square’s repertoire–the stories we tell and the artists who tell them,” Jamil elaborated. “I’ve been lucky enough to assist in that effort, retooling our process of identifying plays and artists, introducing new systems meant to streamline our production process and being another set of artistic eyes as plays move towards the stage. It’s amazing to witness a theatre like Park Square in this part of its growth.”

Over 40 years later, Park Square Theatre remains a work in progress, an organization in dynamic change to, as Jamil describes, “develop a deeper understanding of its place in the community and how to respond to the needs, wants and aesthetic desires of said community. To play a small part in that is a humbling experience.”

Jamil Jude, "Artist Plus" (photo by Farrington Llewellyn)

Jamil Jude, “Artist Plus”
(photo by Farrington Llewellyn)

Work in progress is also an apt description for Jamil Jude himself. He, too, continually  examines his purpose and relevance as an artist. Self-defined as an “Artist Plus,” he works as a freelance director, producer, playwright, dramaturg, speaker or whatever role needed to pursue an artistic vision. That vision is, more often than not, in service to social justice. He has, in fact, more specifically described himself as a “social justice based art maker dedicated to building communities, bringing new communities to the arts and to using the arts as a means to eliminate artificial barriers that society imposes.”

Besides Park Square Theatre, Jamil has been involved in various ways with other theatre organizations throughout the Twin Cities, including Mixed Blood Theatre Company, Children’s Theatre Company, Guthrie Theater, Daleko Arts, Theatre in the Round, Minnesota Fringe Festival and more. He is also a co-producer of The New Griots Festival, dedicated to promoting the work of the next generation of Twin Cities black artists across disciplines (visual, performing, literary, etc.).

Also fitting is that Jamil recently directed Baltimore is Burning, a new play about the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody. It was the inaugural production for the promising new theatre company Underdog Theatre, which “creates art for the underserved, underrepresented, and unheard,” and satisfyingly garnered good reviews. Kory LaQuess Pullam, who has graced Park Square’s stages, is its playwright and the founding artistic director of Underdog.

Darrick Mosley, Kevin West and Peter Thomson in The Highwaymen, directed by Jamil Jude (photo by Scott Pakudaitis)

Darrick Mosley, Kevin West and Peter Thomson in The Highwaymen, directed by Jamil Jude
(photo by Scott Pakudaitis)

Dear to Jamil’s heart is his latest project, directing The Highwaymen, a new play based on research that Jamil and playwright Josh Wilder did on the destruction of St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood in the 1960s to make way for I-94. The demolition of that thriving, predominantly black community echoed similar occurrences throughout the nation to make way for progress on the backs of people of color. Josh dedicated The Highwaymen, which runs through February 26 at the History Theatre in St. Paul, to “the memories we step on and the lives we drive over.”

In November 2015, Jamil was listed in American Theatre, a publication and theatre communications group, as one of “Six Theatre Workers You Should Know.” Whether as part of Park Square Theatre, someone else’s team or working solo, he’ll ever strive to bring us socially relevant theatre to spark constructive community interactions and inspire social change. Whatever Jamil touches, you can just feel them coming: those positive vibrations.

 

“Four Women” by Nina Simone

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Written by Nina Simone, “Four Women” was released in 1966 on her album Wild is the Wind. The song has four verses to describe four African American women with different backgrounds and personalities.

In the play Nina Simone: Four Women by Christina Ham, which had its world premiere at Park Square Theatre last season to sold out crowds, the four women are played by Aimee K. Bryant as Sarah, Jamila Anderson as Saffronia, Traci Allen Shannon as Sweet Thing and Regina Williams as Nina Simone/Peaches. Don’t miss their powerful performance of “Four Women” and other Simone classics!  Don’t miss it this year, The run has just been extended through Sunday, March 5!

My skin is black
My arms are long
My hair is woolly
My back is strong
Strong enough to take the pain
inflicted again and again
What do they call me
My name is AUNT SARAH
My name is Aunt Sarah

My skin is yellow
My hair is long
Between two worlds
I do belong
My father was rich and white
He forced my mother late one night
What do they call me
My name is SAFFRONIA
My name is Saffronia

My skin is tan
My hair is fine
My hips invite you
my mouth like wine
Whose little girl am I?
Anyone who has money to buy
What do they call me
My name is SWEET THING
My name is Sweet Thing

My skin is brown
my manner is tough
I’ll kill the first mother I see
my life has been too rough
I’m awfully bitter these days
because my parents were slaves
What do they call me
My name is PEACHES

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Back by popular demand, with added music!

Who Are You Going to Call?

As Park Square Theatre’s Education Sales and Service Manager, Megan Losure is the first point-of-contact for school group reservations. She joined Education Programs in November of 2015, quickly becoming an indispensable part of the team.

Megan Losure Photograph by Joe & Jen Photography

Megan Losure
Photograph by Joe & Jen Photography

Losure first became involved in theatre in junior high. She continued to act and work on stage crews in high school. While at the University of Minnesota, Morris, she had intended to keep theatre as just an extracurricular activity.

“I found that I really missed it,” Megan said. “So I wondered how to make it a part of my life. Could I make a career out of it?”

With her parents’ blessing, Losure ultimately earned a B.A in Theatre. She even served as co-president of the theatre student group during her senior year.

Like most in the theatre field, Losure followed a winding road to get to where she is now. Straight out of college in 2006, she worked at Camp Snoopy before finding a position with CLIMB Theatre, a nonprofit theatre touring company formed to inspire social change for young people through performance, classes and other creative activities at schools, camps, offices and centers. For three years, Megan traveled with CLIMB throughout Minnesota and Wisconsin to teach about bullying prevention, respect, self-control, friendship and more.

Fatigued from constant travel, Losure returned to work for the Mall of America (MOA), where she advanced to managerial positions in the mall’s Human Resources, Exhibitions and Operations departments as she acquired leadership training. A fun fact is that Megan has also been a character performer at MOA; so who knows—you may have met her before as Dora the Explorer or SpongeBob SquarePants!

While still working full time, Losure began a graduate program in 2011 at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota, earning a master’s degree in Arts and Cultural Management in 2014. She then pursued her desire to work for a nonprofit arts organization. The Education Sales and Service Manager position that she now holds at Park Square Theatre combines her passion for theater and art education for young people and great customer service.

When educators plan a trip to Park Square, they work closely with Losure to tailor for their specific needs, from scheduling dates and times for An Evening of Theatre During the Day performances and Immersion Day workshops to sending out our comprehensive educator information packets and tickets with seating charts before the visit. Bookings for the next season begin as early as March, before the current season has even ended. Helping Megan keep on track is Education Program Associate Connor McEvoy.

Summer is when Losure has more time to review and refine materials and processes. Besides continuing work on reservations, duties now include support for Education Director Mary Finnerty and the Educator Advisory Board, comprised of secondary and post-secondary educators, in creating the classroom-ready study materials for each upcoming Education Program play. Megan attends the planning and creation meetings and does the cover design and layout for our study guides, which are available on the Park Square website.

Megan also assists in organizing the Theatre Ambassadors Program, Park Square Theatre’s program for 10th to 12th graders for a more in-depth look at theatre arts and design.

In a nutshell, Losure works on whatever needs to be done in Park Square Theatre’s Education Program, which serves up to 32,000 students each year. Her job requires constant personal, hands-on contact with all involved. That requires an incredibly organized and dedicated individual–someone like Megan Losure.

For all your Education Program needs, who are you going to call? Megan Losure, Education Sales and Service Manager, at 651.291.9196 (education@parksquaretheatre.org).

Student Matinee Show Times: 

The House on Mango Street – October 11 to November 4

A Raisin in the Sun – November 1 to December 22

A Midsummer Night’s Dream – December 5 to December 22

Flower Drum Song – January 31, February 1, 7, 8, 14, and 15

Nina Simone: Four Women – February 14, 15, 21, and 22

The Diary of Anne Frank – February 28 to April 28

Macbeth – March 28 to May 5

Regular Show Times Evening Performances:

The House on Mango Street – October 21 and 22

A Raisin in the Sun – October 28 to November 20

Flower Drum Song – January 20 to February 19

Nina Simone: Four Women – February 7 to 26

Macbeth – March 17 to April 9

An Evening of Theatre During the Day

Education Program - Bus

With the school year now in full swing, student audiences will steadily begin arriving at Park Square Theatre to enjoy An Evening of Theatre During the Day and/or Immersion Day workshops with local teaching theatre artists.

An Evening of Theatre During the Day, which is what we call our student matinees, provides our young audience members with all the same amenities we offer for an evening performance–the same version of the play, concessions available at intermission, and the same playbill we give to an evening audience as well as ticketed seating with usher assistance.

Education Program - Audience

When asked how she’d conceived the idea of An Evening of Theatre During the Day, Education Director Mary Finnerty replied:

I came up with Evening of Theatre During the Day in 1995 when I was asked if we could not seat students in reserved seats to save time which was how many theatres were dealing with Student Audiences.

Since this is usually the first theater-going experience for 90% of the students, it is our chance to give them an unforgettable experience that may nurture a future love for theatre.  I think it is extremely vital that we give students this age a truly remarkable theatre experience and part of that was treating them to uncut versions of exceptional productions and customer service that made them feel welcome. If we do not give them an Evening of Theatre during the Day we are cheating them.

Every year, middle and high school groups of all sizes, including home school groups, come to participate in Park Square Theatre’s award-winning education program, which serves up to 32,000 students per year. Its service to one of the nation’s largest teen theatre audiences impacts many communities throughout Minnesota and into its neighboring states.

The general public may also purchase tickets for student matinees as long as seats are available. It can be a truly rich and invigorating experience to watch a play surrounded by these enthusiastic young audience members.

To arrange a matinee performance or Immersion Day workshop for students OR to watch a show with student groups, make arrangements with Megan Losure at 651.291.9196 or education@parksquaretheatre.org.

Student Matinee Show Times:

The House on Mango Street – October 11 to November 4
A Raisin in the Sun – November 1 to December 22
A Midsummer Night’s Dream – December 5 to December 22
Flower Drum Song – January 31, February 1, 7, 8, 14, and 15
Nina Simone: Four Women – February 14, 15, 21, and 22
The Diary of Anne Frank – February 28 to April 28
Macbeth – March 28 to May 5

Regular Show Times Evening Performances:

The House on Mango Street – October 21 and 22
A Raisin in the Sun – October 28 to November 20
Flower Drum Song – January 20 to February 19
Nina Simone: Four Women – February 7 to 26
Macbeth - March 17 to April 9

 

Note: Find out the history of Park Square Theatre’s Education Program by reading “The House That Mary Built” (our August 10, 2016, blog post) and look out for upcoming blogs on Education staff, volunteers and services throughout our programming season.

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