Mona Monyane Skenjana (the prostitute), Busi Lurayi (Nina) and Lerato Mvelase (Aunt Sarah) in Nina Simone Four Women, now on at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg. Picture: IRIS DAWN PARKER
Mona Monyane Skenjana (the prostitute), Busi Lurayi (Nina) and Lerato Mvelase (Aunt Sarah) in Nina Simone Four Women, now on at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg. Picture: IRIS DAWN PARKER

With artistic director James Ngcobo’s tradition of commemorating Black History Month, his pick of this play starring mainly women is, as Nina Simone so aptly said, about “an artist’s responsibility to reflect the times”.

With the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements in everyone’s consciousness (or it should be), the Simone-driven play is a clever choice with a cast of powerful young actors strutting the stage.

And even halfway into the run, the theatre is packed with a young (mainly black) audience and they’re enraptured and engaged as these women speak to them with great gusto.

It’s not for the lily-livered because in the main, women haven’t had a voice, and black women, especially, were seldom invited to speak their mind and tell their stories.

It’s their time and it’s like it’s all spilling out with an anger that’s palpable but covering a pain that’s so deep and so sore, it breaks your heart while listening.

When Simone slips into a quiet moment and opens her heart about her own experience of living in a world that seems to hate and discard her, it’s like an open wound she exposes to everyone willing to look more closely.

On September 16 1963, the day after the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, Simone shifted her career from artist to artist–activist. This is where the play begins, in the church with riots outside and the pain of four little girls killed in hatred etched on everyone’s mind. She is writing a song when three diverse women enter and engage about their lives as black women.

But so deep is the self-hatred and lack of confidence, they turn not only on those who mean them harm but also on each other as they compare shades of skin colour and the intent with which each lives her life.

Interwoven with much talk is Simone’s haunting music, dominated by Mississippi Goddam, Black is the Colour of My True Love’s Hair and closing with the obvious Four Women, the song from which the women in the play were drawn.

This mix moves in and out of the consciousness. While the songs complete the conversations of the women, they are more contemplative before the next storm is unleashed as the women twist and turn in their tension and anguish of years of abuse punctuated by the current attack.

It is a sparse set by Nadya Cohen, yet effective in its symbolic power and the women are encouraged to fill the stage, which they do with great abandon. Ncgobo obviously wanted them to embrace their power in this moment — and they do.

The performances are sometimes uneven, Lurayi perhaps hampered by having to capture the Simone kinetic energy, but she soars in the quieter moments and in song. It is quite a presence that she has to establish, and the deep timbre of her voice works in her favour. Mvelase, the most comfortable on stage, inhabits her Aunt Sarah, a domestic worker, with quiet dignity, while the young Dlamini is passionate in her rebellion.

Then comes the abrasive whirlwind Monyane Skenjana to perform in the person of an unapologetic prostitute who believes in disarming if not disabling before an offensive can begin. It’s a tough performance to catch but in the mix it brings the chaos of their lives into sharper focus and adds some light relief to what could become too much to witness and bear.

Cushioning all that is the piano playing of Brian Motsweni, supported by a trio of other musicians and two singers, all adding to the depth of soundtrack. Other sounds such as the sudden rush of the riot don’t get the balance right and while the two singers worked well as they sat to the side, the look was confusing. Perhaps they would have slotted in more smoothly as part of the musos rather than characters, but not quite.

Quibbles aside, taking into account what is swirling around in the world currently, what is said and who is saying it, right now, this is a majestic production.

Theatre is struggling more than ever with little help from anywhere. Even newspapers, their traditional support, are dwindling with less and less art reporting. Yet the audience who was there to look and listen, were predominantly young and black, probably the most sought-after demographic.

And they were delighted — with reason.

‘Nina Simone Four Women’ runs at the Market Theatre until February 24.