At the beginning of Christina Ham’s Four Women, iconic songstress Nina Simone sits amidst the ruins of the 16th Street Baptist Church wrestling with her grief as a woman and as an artist.
The production that commemorates this tragic occurrence and the life of Simone has opened at the Market Theatre with a cast of some of the finest women performers in the country, namely Busi Lurayi as Nina Simone, Lerato Mvelase, Mona Monyane Skejana, and Noxolo Dlamini under the direction of the theatre’s artistic director, James Ngcobo.
The production is showcased under the banner of Black History Month, a celebration of the rich history of African Americans in the US. The Market Theatre has since Ngcobo took over as artistic director commemorated the month with a production that’s American, this will be Ngcobo’s sixth production.
Chatting to Ngcobo about the showcase, he said in staging the production they hadn’t deviated too far off from the Christina Ham original-outside of adding subtle symbols that will make it easier on the South African eye and ear.
“When you approach a text, as a director you start imagining it for yourself. There are things that have been put into the piece that I felt help embellish some of the moments that are there. And also because of my understanding of the South African audience, there were moments especially around context that I felt may not be familiar to South African audiences, and to find ways, theatre conventions, to help an audience really understand where the source of the piece is at,” he said.
Ngcobo said it was important to understand that while music played an important role in the production it is not a musical.
“This is a play first. On our first preview, we had a lot of young people in attendance, and they seemed to think they were coming to a Nina concert. It’s not a concert. It’s got Nina’s music that is interwoven into it. What Christina did so cleverly is that she did not put Nina’s greatest hits into the play. She chose the songs that are pertinent to the moment of the play. So a song like Mississippi Goddam we couldn't have left out because it speaks to the production,” he explained.
Ngcobo explained that the timing that this production is set in, highlights in its own ways the moment that was the 60s worldwide. The arrest of Nelson Mandela through the Rivonia Treason trial, the height of the civil rights movement in the US, some African states getting their freedom-which speaks to a collective shout for the emancipation of Black people across the diaspora. It is for this reason that he also believes it is important to maintain ties with Black History month, to see that the experiences of Blackness across the world aren’t so different.
“I think its important for us as a country to maintain a relationship with Black narrrative from all over the world. After this, I will direct Nigerian play, a two-hander with actors Siyabonga Twala and Warren Masemola, and they play igbos, the production is called River Man. I just feel we see a lot of South African theatre, but we also need to watch narratives that echo where we have been, but from another part of the world.
“That’s why I have directed plays from Mali, this is my second Nigerian play. When I do this I challenge myself as a director, an artistic director, I challenge the actors that I work within the room. It is a beautiful challenge for an actor to pick up an accent and to work into getting the character. We must also challenge (and intrigue) our patrons that come to the Market Theatre and say to them we will give you delicious South African content as well as content from other parts of the world,” he said.
* Four Women is on at the Market Theatre until February 24.