Valerie Curtis-Newton is a Seattle-based, nationally recognized and award-winning director; serves as the Head of Performance – Directing at the UW School of Drama; and is the founding Artistic Director of The Hansberry Project, a theatre company devoted to artistic excellence in Black theatre.
Most recently, Curtis-Newton directed Nina Simone: Four Women at Seattle Repertory Theatre, on now through June 2. (Read NWT’s review, here.) Next up, she will direct The Agitators, on Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony, which opens June 7 at West of Lenin. Later this summer, The Hansberry Project will partner with Sound Theatre Company on Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric (opening in July) (directed by Jay O’Leary); and Bulrusher with Intiman Theatre (August-September), which Curtis-Newton will direct.
Curtis-Newton talked with NWTheatre about her vision coming to Nina Simone: Four Women and its characters, her own artistic influences, and the artist-activism central to this show and more generally.
Interview content is condensed and edited for clarity.
Playwright Christina Ham’s use of the song “Four Women” as basis for her narrative creates an interesting setup for several reasons — one of which is that the characters are stereotypes, divisive and offensive to many. (And for that reason, some Black radio stations reportedly refused to play the song when it came out.) How did you approach the creation and portrayal of these characters in the play?
In these characters, I see a truth. I see how racist, sexist, classist patriarchy pits us against each other. It denies the reality of our lived experience. Robs us of our voices and uses our infighting to avoid confronting our legitimate issues with our treatment. Call them archetypes, stereotypes, whatever you like.
[In creating the versions of the characters that would be on stage], it was mostly cast-driven. I met with each of them at the beginning of the process to talk about their characters, and the challenges they faced in the play and in society in general.
[Can you speak to the role of Sweet Thing? She has the least stage time and seems to be the character conceived last.]
And yet, she is the most fierce truth teller of them all. She calls out every hypocrisy with passion and directness. It is not really until she arrives that the image of Black women as sexual is tackled.
[What are the dangers of having a predominantly White gaze from the audience on these particular characters, and this show?]
The danger is primarily that folks will only see the entertainment and miss the inherent call to action. For me, this play is about finding one’s feet as an activist. That requires a respect for activism. And a willingness to question one’s own inactivity in the face of the dangers of the times in which we live.
On that note, Miss Simone is famously quoted as saying, “An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.” As a director (and indeed as a playwright), how is your work reflective of the current times, even as it tends to look back into past decades?
I work mostly on plays that speak to finding an activist voice, speaking tough truths, asking if we can “go further and do better.”
Black people are so often reflected as only struggling, wrestling, overcoming, that everyone forgets that we love and laugh and figure out how to survive with our humanity intact. I want art to remind of those things too.
I’m driven to make art that challenges our current condition and lifts up the humanity of Black lives because of people like Alice Childress, Lorraine Hansberry, James Baldwin, and Nina Simone. They set a standard in their time which was also a pivotal time of my growing up. I’m not sure who I’d be personally or artistically without them.
A song featured in Nina Simone: Four Women is “Young, Gifted and Black,” a tribute to Miss Simone’s friend Lorraine Hansberry (who died very young, in 1965). As co-founder and Artistic Director of the Hansberry Project, how has Miss Hansberry informed your work? And can you speak to the friendship between Simone and Hansberry?
I think that the relationship between those amazing women is ripe for its own show. Hansberry was one of the people who was urging Simone to use her activist voice through her music. She inspired “Young, Gifted and Black.” The words were taken from an address Hansberry had given.
I’m driven to make art that challenges our current condition and lifts up the humanity of Black lives because of people like Alice Childress, Lorraine Hansberry, James Baldwin and Nina Simone. They set a standard in their time which was also a pivotal time of my growing up. I’m not sure who I’d be personally or artistically without them.
Something hinted at by the production but not raised overtly in the script is that much of Simone’s career, particularly toward the latter part, was influenced by a need for self-care. A little under two years ago, you had a stroke. How did that experience change your approach to workload and self-care?
I now have to be mindful of my stamina. Lots of rest and as little stress as possible are key. it is just a fact of my life these days that I can’t do things the way I did when I was younger. But that can also be a call to find new ways to work.
[Speaking of work and workload: an issue that is raised directly in the play is the perceived disconnect between being paid for your talents and putting them to work for “good,” or “the cause” — and an accusation that if one is being paid, they’re in it for impure reasons. (Likewise, it seems that artists and Black people are among the groups who are consistently undervalued and underpaid for their work.) Can you speak to that tension?]
I have not figured this one out. I have been accused on occasion of abandoning the community because I work in venues that charge a lot to attend. And yet, I’m also getting people paid a living wage for the talents, telling important stories and challenging systems that exclude us. I also support and mentor other artists. I guess one just has to know who they are and live in integrity with their own values.
[On living in their own values — as alluded to in the play, certain audiences like to compare Nina Simone and Billie Holiday. How (if at all) did working so recently on a play about Lady Day inform your approach to this show?]
There was very little overlap — except in realizing that they both were at the mercy of an industry that couldn’t or didn’t see them as complete human beings.
The danger is primarily that folks will only see the entertainment and miss the inherent call to action. For me, this play is about finding one’s feet as an activist. That requires a willingness to question one’s own inactivity in the face of the dangers of the times in which we live.
Where most of the show derives from Simone’s biography and music, at least two prominent parts were unique to this show: the rhythm in “Shout Oh, Mary” (which the playwright wrote, and for which Dani Tirrell provided choreography), and the closing song, written by lead actor Shontina Vernon. Can you talk about the creation and intent of those elements?
“Shout Oh Mary” is an invocation of God and the ancestors to heal the wounds that society inflicts. I wanted it to be a literal release, a loosing of the chains. I wanted to multiply the voices. Not four girls, not four women, but generations before and after Birmingham have faced the “-isms” and kept things moving. Dani gave us a choreographic language which we let the actors own and use as the “spirit moves.” It will be different in each performance.
“Freedom Song” embodies a shift in how we think about Nina and the other powerful Black women throughout history. I wanted to place Nina rightly in the long line of Black women activists. Shontina’s song seemed a great way to do that. It also asks “Where will you be?” — which gets back to your questions about White gaze. “Where will you be?“ is a powerful question and indictment.
Hear an audio interview with Valerie Curtis-Newton and the Nina Simone: Four Women cast, plus the cast singing Shontina Vernon’s powerful “Freedom Song,” on public radio station KNKX here.
Nina Simone: Four Women runs through 6/2 at Seattle Repertory Theatre at Seattle Center/Lower Queen Anne. Tickets up to $90, available here. For showtimes, visit Calendar page. Accessibility notes: restrooms are gendered and multi-stall; there is one single-stall, gender-neutral restroom that is a maze to locate. (To find it: after the ticket scanner, take a right, go in the door marked emergency exit, then the door marked staff only — no kidding. You might need to ask the house manager.) Theatre and common areas are wheelchair accessible, and assisted hearing devices are available; see physical accessibility info here.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org. He credits Curtis-Newton as perhaps the only person who could inspire his wallflower self to get on stage, both in hosting post-show playwright discussions (with Parley, Sound Theatre, and others); and in an acting role (once!) in a community reading of The Every 28 Hours Plays at Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute, surrounded by an enormously talented cast.