On Sunday, September 15, 1963, four members of the Ku Klux Klan planted more than a dozen sticks of dynamite under the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The explosion killed four girls and injured 22 others. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., described the bombing as “one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity.” The singer, Nina Simone, was driven by this act of violence to write “Mississippi Goddam,” with lyrics that actress Theresa Cunningham describes as: “Direct. Angering. Revelatory. Empowering.” Cunningham is part of the cast in Christina Ham’s Nina Simone: Four Women, which will open at Arena Stage on November 10.
“One of the things this show has instilled in me is the importance of speaking the names of the four girls who were killed, to honor both who they were, and the women they could have become: Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Denise McNair,” said Theresa, who said she learned about the bombing when she was a student.
More than 50 years later, a white supremacist, Dylan Roof, murdered nine African Americans at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, North Carolina. This past August, one woman was killed and 19 injured when a speeding car mowed down those protesting a rally of white supremacists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia.
“I do not believe that these actions have undone any progress that has been made,” said Theresa. “I think that they show how very much further we have to go. If Nina Simone were alive today, I believe she would still be doing what she does best: using her platform as an artist to say the unspeakable when something awful happens. It’s hard for me to imagine anyone listening to Nina’s music, and not having a soul shift. Her pain, anger, and hope are palpable in every key she strikes, note she sings, or word she speaks.”
Simone recorded “Mississippi Goddam” despite the risks to her career. Some radio stations smashed the record and returned it to her recording company and for many years her career suffered. But there’s no doubt that she was a trailblazer, paving the way for the many writers and musicians that came after her, recording songs that also challenged the status quo.”We see her legacy everywhere,” said Theresa, singling out India Arie, Jill Scott, Beyoncé, Kanye West, Talib Kweli, Jay-Z, John Legend, Common, Lauren Hill, Erykah Badu, J. Cole, Chance the Rapper, Kendrick Lamar, to name just a few.
Simone wrote the song “Four Women” in 1966, telling the story of four different African American women, defined by their skin color and the stereotype placed on them by society. Theresa plays Aunt Sarah, a dark-skinned woman who, although representing enslavement, nonetheless is “strong enough to take the pain.” The other women include: Sephronia (Toni Martin) whose white father raped her black mother; Sweet Thing (Felicia Curry), a prostitute whose tan skin color gains her acceptance among both blacks and whites; and Nina Simone (Harriett D. Foy).
One of the songs included in the show is “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” which Simone apparently wrote for Lorraine Hansberry, who wrote Raisin in the Sun, which was produced at Arena Stage last season. Theresa appeared in a production of the play at the Compass Rose Theatre in Annapolis. “Nina considered Lorraine Hansberry to be one of her political tutors,” said Theresa. “To be a fly on that wall! Both women used their art to address race and gender roles, civil rights and unapologetic self-determination.`To Be Young, Gifted and Black’ honors those before, after, and yet to come.”
Theresa, who will be making her Arena Stage debut, won a Helen Hayes Award for her playing Sofia in The Color Purple at Toby’s Dinner Theatre in Columbia, Maryland. “It is still one of my favorite roles to date,” she said. “I was new to the D.C. theatre community at the time. The recognition definitely gave me the opportunity to be seen and considered for more roles.”
As a musical theatre major at Syracuse University, Theresa set her sights on Broadway. “After college, I discovered that I also have a strong love for teaching,” she said. Besides her performance schedule, she is the Director of Education at Ovations Theatre, a theatre for young musical theatre artists based in Montgomery County. “One of the great things about being an actor is that everything you experience influences your craft: education, relationship successes and failures, trauma, triumph, etc.”
A lifelong Simone fan, Theresa hopes that D.C. audiences will be “Moved to conversation. Moved to question. Moved to speak. Moved to act.” She added: “We continue to be in a fight for civil rights, justice, and equality. This show not only reminds us of a time when this battle was at the forefront, but also explores the personal plights that Black women in particular must acknowledge in order to lead the way.”
Top photo by Tony Powell: (L to R) Harriett D. Foy (Nina Simone), Toni L. Martin (Sephronia), Felicia Curry (Sweet Thing) and Theresa Cunningham (Sarah).
Nina Simone: Four Women
Through December 24, 2017
1011 Sixth Street, SW