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In ‘Nina Simone: Four Women,’ the singer, the song, the outrage

Kenneth L. Roberson, director of "Nina Simone: Four Women," with actress Dionne Addai at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre.
Kenneth L. Roberson, director of "Nina Simone: Four Women," with actress Dionne Addai at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre.Erin Clark / Globe Staff

In 1966, Nina Simone released a song called “Four Women.” It was both a civil rights protest and a feminist anthem.

The four women who inhabit the song’s four verses are archetypes. One is a caretaker, the next a mixed-race daughter of a white father, the third an unapologetic streetwalker. The fourth is a fierce woman famously named “Peaches.”

Simone, it has often been said, identified most closely with Peaches. She was reportedly upset when the song was banned by a few Northeast radio stations, after program directors cited concerns that the songwriter’s characters were trafficking in hurtful stereotypes.

In the play “Nina Simone: Four Women,” which opens Wednesday at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell, the singer and her fictional counterparts from the song — Aunt Sarah, Sephronia, and Sweet Thing — converge on the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., in the aftermath of the horrific Ku Klux Klan bombing in September 1963. The real-life crime took the lives of four young Black schoolgirls.

To Dionne Addai, the actress who plays Simone, those radio censors completely misunderstood the intent of the song. The characters’ apparent one-dimensionality was an indictment of the oversimplified portrayals of Black women in the popular culture of the day, she suggests.

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“The fact you don’t think I’m more complex than that in some ways gives me a sort of power, because I am all of these other things that you’re not seeing,” she says. More than 50 years later, “we see the song for all that it is.”

Playwright Christina Ham saw it as a way into a story about noxious racism and the human capacity for resilience. “Nina Simone: Four Women” had its world premiere in St. Paul in 2016 and played early last year at Northlight Theatre outside Chicago. Now the director of that production, Kenneth Roberson, brings it to Lowell with several cast members from the Chicago run.

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Roberson is a distinguished theater veteran who choreographed “Avenue Q” on Broadway and the Atlanta world premiere of a musical based on “The Color Purple,” among many other credits. Sitting with Addai in the otherwise empty seats of the MRT on the morning of a recent rehearsal, he said that the play’s connections to present-day troubles are coincidental, but they’re significant.

“It just so happens that churches are again being attacked, places of worship in minority communities are being attacked,” he said. As a Black boy growing up near Augusta, Ga., in the 1960s, he recalled, the church provided the congregation much more than just religion.

“Black churches were places we could go to find out what was going on politically. You went there to meet a mate, you went there for money, for health services, to find out where to go and where not to go.”

“Our town hall was always the church,” he said. “These people” — the bombers — “knew that.”

Simone was a classically trained pianist who became a cabaret singer after being denied a chance to study at a conservatory. Incidents such as the church bombing and the murder of activist Medgar Evers confirmed her commitment to the civil rights struggle. Many of her best-known songs, including “Mississippi Goddam” and “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” were written in the spirit of resistance, and they appear in the show.

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Addai, who understudied the show’s lead role in Chicago, uses incidents of casual racism from her own experience to stoke her performance as Simone. She grew up in Nashville with parents of Ghanaian descent. As a child, while visiting the home of a white friend, “her brother said the N-word to me a couple times. I remember not actually knowing what it meant.”

More recently, she lost her job as a teaching artist at an after-school program on Chicago’s South Side after a few of the students got into a fight. Rather than take the opportunity to work on conflict resolution, the sponsoring institution simply pulled the plug on the program, she said.

“There have been a lot of instances of discrimination in my life,” said Addai, whose cat-eye glasses accompany a gap-toothed smile. “When I was younger, it was hard to process. I’d go home and cry, draw, whatever. As I got older, I found my voice. The anger comes.”

Asked if it’s been cathartic to play Simone, she said yes: “I’m not gonna lie — it helps fuel me.”

In “Four Women,” Simone “gets specific, not just about the racism experienced by Black people but the things experienced by Black women, the sexism within the community,” she said. “So, yeah, it is right there and present for me. It feels like the right thing to be doing right now.”

The song, Roberson and Addai agree, was problematic within the Black community in part because it addressed a taboo subject — that of “colorism,” the prejudice that is based on skin color. Aunt Sarah, played by Deanna Reed-Foster, introduces herself by saying “My skin is black.” Sephronia (Ariel Richardson) — whose “father was rich and white/He forced my mother late one night” — is identified as “yellow.” Sweet Thing (Alanna Lovely) is “tan,” and Peaches is “brown.”

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As the songwriter, Simone “made sure she gave these women a color,” said Roberson. At a time when such things were not discussed, “Nina was bold enough that she was going to challenge us with this.”

“We know that Nina’s struggle was very specific to someone with darker skin,” added Addai.

Roberson sees a more worldly perspective among Addai’s generation — she is 27 — than his own. (He’s “old enough to be her grandfather,” he joked.)

Addai agreed, up to a point. “We live in a time when there’s more Black art out there,” she said. “We want to see a range of portrayals of Black people in our media.” Increasingly, she said, Black characters in film and on television have become complex individuals, not the mere stereotypes that Simone was calling out. And “Nina Simone: Four Women” reflects that.

“The way that Black women interact with each other feels so real in this play,” she said.

James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.

NINA SIMONE: FOUR WOMEN

At Merrimack Repertory Theatre, 50 E. Merrimack St., Lowell, Feb. 12-March 8. Tickets start at $24, 978-654-4678, www.mrt.org

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