By Brian Robin
For Christina Ham, This Work Is Deeply Personal
There is a reason why Christina Ham brought the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham back into the public conscience nearly 60 years after it became one of the tragic symbols of the Civil Rights Era. All Ham had to do was consult her family tree and the seed was planted for two of her most powerful plays: NinaSimone: Four Women and her Theatre for Young Audiences play, Four Little Girls.
Ham grew up in Los Angeles. But the 16th Street Baptist Church, which was destroyed by a bomb that killed Cynthia Wesley, Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair on Sept. 15, 1963—the aforementioned Four Little Girls—was a significant part of her family history.
Ham’s mother and aunt belonged to that church.
“I remember growing up and hearing my mom and aunt talk about seeing Eleanor Roosevelt come there. Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes and all the other historic figures you can imagine who were big at the time would come through there and they would see them speak,” she said. “It was a very important landmark in a lot of ways besides the bombing itself.”
That familial landmark provided one of Ham’s inspirations for writing Nina Simone: Four Women, which opens SCR’s 2022-23 season Oct. 2-23 on the Julianne Argyros Stage. Subscribers to the Segerstrom Stage will also receive it as part of their season ticket.
A deeply personal play with music, Nina Simone: Four Women imagines how the iconic chanteuse forged her true calling—and gave voice to countless other Black women fighting to overcome stereotypes and racism. It includes Simone’s most impactful songs including “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” “Go Limp” and “Mississippi Goddam.”
Ham’s inspiration to chronicle Nina Simone’s transformation from artist into activist went beyond that familial and historic landmark. It took her beyond her childhood and teenage disgust with history. And it captured Simone at the pivotal place in her life.
Ham said Nina Simone: Four Women came about through a relationship she had with Regina Marie Williams, an actress at the Park Square Theatre in St. Paul, MN. The theatre wanted Ham to write a play centered on Simone, one of the most underrated and underappreciated musicians in music history. Rolling Stoneranked Simone the 29th greatest singer of the 20th century, just ahead of the likes of Prince, Howlin Wolf and Bono.
“They laid down the gauntlet and said wherever I wanted to go, they would go with me,” she said. “It was really challenging because she had such a dynamic life and what part do you choose to portray on stage for a focused event that isn’t a musical? Most of her songs are covers and they’re brilliant covers, but she didn’t write a lot of songs in her career.
“This was one of the most difficult commissions I ever had. But after a lot of reading and considering right before the first draft was due, I finally came up with the perfect point. I went personal and I think for writers, no matter what we’re writing, it has to come from a personal jumping-off point—even if it’s not autobiographical.”
Nina Simone: Four Women premiered in March 2016 at the Park Square Theatre. BroadwayWorld has called it “Eye opening, powerful, stirring and unique.” Earlier this year, it played at Arizona Theatre Company, where the Arizona Daily Star called it “Gorgeous … a stunner all the way through.”
And yet, Ham continues to revisit, revise and rewrite a work she called “the hardest play I’ve ever written.” Going into SCR’s production, Ham is rewriting the last 41 pages of her work. This is labor-intensive; Ham said is the first time she’s undergone this level of rewriting on the fly and she said 90% of the context is different than it was five years ago.
But it’s also a labor of love.
“This play is an outlier in the realization of what it means to actually create a new play and bring it to life,” she said. “It’s really afforded me the opportunity in terms of production and seeing a play in my home town, where I can attend rehearsals. This allows me to do the most revisions … I really cherish the process. I cherish rewriting. I cherish cutting. I’m not one of those people who is necessarily satisfied with what I have when I’m done.
“Our goal is to restore the original goals of this story, so going forward, the SCR production and script is the gold standard in terms of what this show looks like and what it’s actually about.”
One of those changes came in the setting. Originally, Ham set the play in the bombed-out rubble of the 16th Street Baptist Church. Now, it's moved north, to Simone’s Mt. Vernon, N.Y. home. The change came after a discussion with director Logan Vaughn and it helped Ham hone in on where she wanted to go.
“That opened the door to starting to talk about what the story is and what it means to capture her in the midst of her creative process,” she said. “Trying to bring to life one of the greatest protest songs we have in the pantheon of American music (“Mississippi Goddam”). That’s really what this has been about.
“In terms of realizing that and realizing exactly what the four women in the show actually mean. They’re not women coming off the streets of Birmingham walking into a church crime scene. These are women actually different than she is and she’s actually trying to realize this in the midst of the mental-health issues she battled.”
Ham overcame a childhood abhorrence of history, one rooted in the rote ways history is taught and an overdependence on dates and names, by diving into intensive research into not only Simone, but the times she navigated. Her goal was to take audiences into a time and place where “Black women were caught in the crosshairs of history.”
With that, Ham circles back to the 16th Street Baptist Church. Her TYA production of Four Little Girls was performed in front of former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and former Attorney General Eric Holder. Ham’s play, Ruby!—chronicling the 1960 story about 6-year-old Ruby Bridges, one of six African American children in New Orleans to integrate all-white schools—played at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in front of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the late civil rights pillar and congressman John Lewis, and Bridges herself.
“I love TYA plays,” she said. “I always advise playwrights coming up to write TYA because there’s such an immense satisfaction with those works and you know that audience appreciates it.”
This comes from someone who appreciated her writing gift from a young age. Ham’s writing muses took her from newspapers to publishing to public relations to technical writing for a bank to writing for television, which keeps her busy now. Ham was the supervising producer for “Westworld” and previously worked on such shows as “The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” and “Sweet Tooth.”
“TV keeps me busy, but only as busy as I want to be,” she said. “… Being able to do this (Nina Simone:Four Women) does take time away from developing my other work, but once it’s done, it’s a piece that will definitely be different than anything that has been seen before. It means a lot to be able to share that with people in my own backyard who get to see it for the first time.”