Art Talk with playwright Christina Ham
At the beginning of Christina Ham’s Nina Simone: Four Women—which takes its name from Simone’s controversial 1966 song—Nina Simone sits amidst the ruins of the bombed 16th Street Baptist Church wrestling with her grief as a woman and as an artist. Currently in performances at Washington, DC’s Arena Stage through December 24, the play with music explores how the murder of four little girls in that 1963 bombing galvanized Simone’s activism, while simultaneously looking at the ways black women were both empowered and sidelined by the Civil Rights movement. Ham, currently a Mellon Playwright-in-Residence at Minneapolis’ Pillsbury House Theater, is curious about the ways in which an artist can be misunderstood even as they try through their art to understand the culture they inhabit. She’s also curious about the history and secrets of the African-American community, and what occurs when those secrets are brought to light in the larger world. As Ham explained to us in an interview the night before her play officially opened at Arena, “Sometimes [this type of conversation] makes people unhappy but Nina didn’t make people comfortable….” Here’s more from the prolific playwright on how being a theatrical late bloomer informs her work, the genesis of Nina Simone: Four Women, and her best advice for writers.
NEA: What’s your origin story as a playwright?
CHRISTINA HAM: I went to [the University of Southern California]. I’d actually gotten into their journalism program, but after a semester I changed majors to a Creative Writing/English Lit major, which meant I was writing short stories I really loved that, but I became less interested in the prose part, and more interested in the dialogue. I grew up in Los Angeles, so, it was all about movies every week. But I took a playwriting class with Velina Hasu Houston, which pretty much changed my life. She recommended I apply to UCLA— it became the only playwriting program I applied to—and I got in. It was really fantastic to be able to learn something that was very new to me, because I wasn’t really interested [in theater] before my senior year in undergrad. I didn’t really pursue it aggressively as a career [after college] mainly because of family needs. I worked a lot in public relations. I worked in publishing. I worked in corporate and nonprofit communications. In the background, I was still doing playwriting, but it wasn’t something I could fully focus on. It wasn’t until I had my final job working in a public affairs office that I decided that I wanted to take the leap and see if I could work full-time as a playwright. [I decided to] give myself two years to see if I could make a living as a playwright. That was probably 17 years ago.I never had a problem since making a living as a writer. A lot of that was supplemented by teaching, which I still love doing, and commissions and things that came in at the right time to help supplement my income. You slowly start realizing if you want to work for joy and not a paycheck that you actually don’t need as much as you think you do.
NEA: How do you think the fact that theater was a late-blooming interest for you informs how you look at theater and the art of playwriting?
HAM: It gave me more time to understand what I was really wanting to write about and stories that I wanted to tell. I’m not really interested in writing quirky things that are what I like to call journal entries to myself…. I was commissioned by a lot of smaller children’s theaters in St. Paul when I relocated there, and that gave me a huge sense of learning about audience, knowing how to write for [ a particular] audience, and also how to bring them in. A lot of plays that I see, I’m not sure who the audience is and what they’re trying to communicate. Writers have a variety of reasons for why they write work, but I’m just so clear about, at this point in my life, why I’m writing, what I want to communicate
NEA: That’s a perfect segue way into asking you to talk about your mission statement as an artist.
HAM: My calling as a writer is deeply and intrinsically tied to my spiritual life. I feel like that understanding spills over into the storytelling of Nina [Simone: Four Women] in that you feel you were put here for a reason, and you feel like you are walking and living that path. Part of it is looking to really bring stories to life in the African-American community that we don’t normally get to see and we also don’t know about. The last 10 years of my work has really been about finding these footnotes in black history. I teach Intro to Black Theater History, so I’m consumed by our history and things that I’m learning myself, things that I pass on to my students and things that I want to share with audiences because our story is so vast.
NEA: Where do your plays start for you? Do they start with a character or a line of dialogue? Is it setting or a particular issue?
HAM: I don’t know if it’s because I’ve watched a lot of movies [or because] I’ve studied film, but it’s always visual. I have to see the stage and see the space and start to understand how the characters function in that world, and what world it is.
NEA: Does that initial visual that come out of research or is it more of a recurring thought?
HAM: It’s a recurring thought that’s very visually based. The research is more secondary. Environment is so specific to the world building of the play that I have to really know what the setting is, and the setting influences the characters, just like we’re influenced by where we’re from.
NEA: How did Nina Simone: Four Women start?
HAM: I would say it’s one of the hardest plays that I’ve written. In the present day, people know more about her, but she was such a tertiary figure [in her time]. She wasn’t like Etta James or Sarah Vaughan. My family always had her albums around, so I always knew about her. I never did not grow up with her. But for this play it took several, I would say four different drafts, not full drafts, but 30 pages trying to figure out what that entry point into her story was. Thinking about the research and really thinking about her as an artist [I started] to realize the shift in her career happened because of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. She grew up in the church, and suddenly all these things that seemed so disparate just started to come together for storytelling purposes. I had mentioned to the theater that had commissioned the play—Park Square Theater in St. Paul--that I wasn’t interested in doing a bio play about her, in particular, or anybody, only because I feel like those stories get short-shifted because you’re trying to make it theatrical.
NEA: What made you say yes to that commission?
HAM: I was fascinated by her enough to say yes, but mainly I said yes because they were going to allow me to write the play on my terms, and they weren’t trying to dictate well, we need it to be a jukebox musical or we need it to be a bio play or anything like that. The thing that resonated with me about Nina Simone was specifically how she was creating during a time where black women were being sidelined during the Civil Rights Movement, even though we were such an integral part of that movement…. During that time, she was so ahead of the curve in terms of black liberation, feminism, and just so many things that we hadn’t even conceived of in 1963. The song “Four Women” was censored by black radio stations because they didn’t understand what’s she writing about, and why’s she saying these things about our women. She was misunderstood, and … the bombing shifted her from just being an artist to leaping and being an artist and activist because suddenly girls are being murdered in church, and that’s unacceptable during any time.
Also, my family went to that church, my mom’s family, and so it became personal. As an artist I can understand that pain and the kind of pathos of trying to create during a time where you’re trying to do the right thing, but you’re also misunderstood. I really wanted to explore all these things in the play and make it bigger than just being about Nina, but more about the idea of civil rights during that time period, and how art feeds into that.
NEA: Now that you have some distance from writing this play, I’m curious if it’s revealing anything new to you?
HAM: That’s a good question. What I’m learning about the play is that it’s so much bigger than me, even in terms of what I thought I was writing about or what I wanted it to be, which is why, I think, it was such a hard play to write. It’s like Nina would never be encapsulated or pigeonholed into this one thing and I think the play is very malleable in that way, in that even with the things that I can iterate to you about what I wanted to capture. I feel like there is this, I don’t know, this element of spirituality that springs from the play that I don’t think I was really anticipating. I think how it impacts people is also something that’s not anticipated, and, also, how it’s grown, what the story really wants to be. I think what I didn’t anticipate was this idea of the framework of the four women and the incisiveness that kind of really shakes people in terms of the things that are said in that play, the kind of secrets that we keep in our community but we never say in public. This is putting it out there, and sometimes it makes people uncomfortable, but Nina didn’t make people comfortable, so I can’t write a play about her and not talk about [uncomfortable issues].
NEA: What have you learned about yourself as a writer from working on this project?
HAM: I’ve learned that sometimes the play has to tell you what it wants to be. It sounds kind of whoo-whoo, but really with this play, why it was so difficult is that I had preconceived notions about what I was going write about, but then it had to reveal itself to me. I’m not really used to that. I usually always have a game plan, so, that was very difficult. Also, I think learning when to let go has been a big part of the process, and really trusting collaborators in terms of what they’re bringing to the table and not feeling like I have to do all the heavy lifting all the time.
NEA: Do you have any writing rituals? How do you create an environment that gets you to the place where you can do your work?
HAM: My ritual is that I don’t write at home. Through my various jobs, I have four offices, including my home. I don’t write in any of them. I think part of it for me is I like traveling, so I don’t want to be in the same space writing. I can write anywhere. I don’t necessarily need quiet. Whatever my page count is for the day I reward myself. So, whether that’s going to the movies or getting a manicure or taking myself out to dinner, that’s what I do. I’m not one of those writers who uses writing prompts or any of that…. I always know what I’m writing about otherwise I’m not at the computer.
NEA: What’s your superpower as an artist?
HAM: That’s easy—teaching and mentorship. I’m really good at inspiring people to be the best that they can be and pushing them to do and be better, even when they think they can’t.
NEA: As a teacher, what do you think is the best piece of advice you give your students?
HAM: Find a mentor.
NEA: Anything you want to add?
HAM: It’s what I tell my students: our business as writers is really a marathon. It’s not a sprint, and I think people get consumed with what this artist is doing, or why didn’t I get that opportunity, or why am I not getting what that person is getting. I think, like a runner, the best thing that we can do is run our own race. Our fingerprints are very different in this business. I stopped [comparing myself to other writers] a long time ago, and it’s been a lot more peaceful.
This interview has been edited and condensed.