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Studio Theatre, Stage 4
Sunday, July 21, 6:30 p.m. Thursday, July 25, 6:45 p.m. Saturday, July 27, 2:30 p.m.
They say: “When singer Nina Simone created ‘Four Women’ she probably didn’t imagine it portrayed through movement, storytelling and laughter, but we did! Four Women goes beyond the lyrics, exploring black womanhood and its many dimensions. Not a performance, a journey.”
Alexis’ Take: “My skin is black. My arms are long. My hair is woolly. My back is strong. Strong enough to take the pain inflicted again and again…”
These are the opening lyrics to Nina Simone‘s powerful “Four Women,” a song she wrote in 1966 that digs into and exposes pervasive black female stereotypes. The song, as far as Fringe is concerned, has inspired an ambitious but at times belabored 75-minute show that fleshes out Simone’s lyrics and transfers them into the 21st century (which, depressingly, isn’t always much better than it was for Simone, as labor statistics and, you know, pop culture problems indicate).
Employing multiple storytelling modes, from satirical sketches and spoken word to dance and singing, the four talented actresses present a refreshing show. Unfortunately, the show’s writing and structure falters at times by trying to take on too much; giving us segments that focus specifically on every subject imaginable, including mental health, workplace discrimination, body image, and rape. When they come together as a whole, it makes for an uneven hour or so.
One scene in a certain style might absolutely work, as with a scene in which a woman who is fired for speaking “aggressively” toward a white employee turns out to be merely a memory/hallucination that the human resources director has projected onto an interview candidate.
But then another in the same basic style can completely lose any sense of nuance. This makes the premise of a young woman’s alienated return home from college feel like a primetime television “very special episode” (ala Tom Hanks as the alcoholic uncle on Family Ties or the deadbeat dads episode of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air).
Margaux Delotte-Bennett delivers some of the more memorable soliloquies–one as Sarah Baartman, one clad in a black hoodie–with elegance. And Clarissa McKithen, with her confident swoop of pink hair, shines in a dance piece that approaches Savion Glover‘s history drenched choreography in Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk, in which she springs frantically from West African traditional dance to hip hop at the turn of a schizophrenic radio dial.
Transitions are handled in the guise of a fake news channel (“IDK News with Cherry Blossoom“), whose chipper anchors report with much seriousness on “what it’s like to be a black woman” and “what black women don’t do” accompanied by a gospel choir. This pairing perfectly captures the patronizing, sloppy pedigree of this kind of journalism.
The best moments in Four Women are the ones in which we’re not being instructed (or in some cases clubbed over the head with) how to react to a vignette, but are forced to work at figuring out what’s happening. While it’s clearly a work in progress, this piece has flashes of provocative brilliance.
See it if: Alabama’s gotten you so upset, Tennessee made you lose your rest, and everybody knows about Mississippi goddamn.
Skip it if: You’d rather sit there and count your fingers.