By Josh Flanders
Powerful, important, and timely, Nina Simone: Four Women takes place at the turning point when singer and songwriter Nina Simone decides to leave behind singing other people’s popular music and take up the mantle of activist.
Set in the 16th Street Baptist church just following the 1963 bombing that took the lives of four little girls, this musical drama imagines Simone along with three characters explored in the song “Four Women,” all grappling with their place in the civil rights movement, the black community and America at large.
Through these four distinct voices, playwright Christina Ham deftly explores the variety and complexity of black female voices. What is the role of identity politics among women of color? Who defines who is black? What is the social and political impact of marching versus singing? And why do women always end up doing the hard work that men won’t do?
This last question becomes especially relevant as Simone pens and sings her first real protest song, “Mississippi Goddam” in response to the murder of Medgar Evers and the four girls killed at the 16th Street Baptist Church. Other Simone songs featured prominently include “Old Jim Crow,” “Sinnerman,” “Four Women,” and “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.”
Often describing herself as playing “black classical music,” Simone’s own compositions fail to fit the mold of traditional folk protest songs, instead blending elements of classical, gospel, blues, jazz and R&B. Sydney Charles is sensationally commanding as Nina Simone, perfectly conveying her intensity and anger, but also her humanity and very human struggle. And wow, does her beautiful contralto voice do the famous singer justice.
The entire cast are all equally notable actors and singers. Deanna Reed-Foster plays auntie Sarah, a cleaning lady and member of the church, whose working-class character juxtaposes Simone’s who is breaking away from traditional figures like her mother, and even Martin Luther King, Jr. Sarah’s gospel hymns are wonderful and moving, real show stoppers. Ariel Richardson, as Sephronia, plays the front-line activist whose light skin and interracial background breed skepticism from the other women. Finally, Melanie Brezill as Sweet Thing brings a levity and attitude to help round out these four women. Together, their musical numbers are nothing short of breathtaking.
Their songs are accompanied on piano by the imminently talented Daniel Riley as Sam Waymon who sits nearly silent the whole show but whose presence cannot be understated. The beautiful set, by scenic designer Christopher Rhoton, with broken stained glass windows conveys both tragedy and hope, allowing the songs in this show to reach towards something better.
Tragically, so little has changed in 55 years and the oft-repeated lament of “change comes too slow” is as frustratingly relevant today as it was then. One powerful sentiment from Simone, in the show, is how we cripple ourselves cleaning up the mess of other people. Yet music has the ability to communicate the unspeakable when something terrible happens. Nina Simone: Four Women provides voices we need to hear today—those of strong, gifted, black women.
Northlight Theater presents “Nina Simone: Four Women” through March 2 at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd, Skokie. More information and tickets are available here.