Review: “Nina Simone: Four Women”

Sydney Charles and Daniel Riley in “Nina Simone: Four Women.” (Photo by Michael Brosilow)

RECOMMENDED

Where: Northlight Theatre,
North Shore Center for the
Performing Arts,
9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie
When: through March 2
Tickets: $30-$88
Phone: 847-673-6300

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

If you just think of Nina Simone as a jazz singer, Christina Ham’s “Nina Simone: Four Women” at Northlight Theatre will be a real eye-opener.

The intense 90-minute play with music focuses heavily on the classically trained musician’s involvement with the Civil Rights Movement. Incensed and transformed by the June 12, 1963, murder of Medgar Evers and the September 15, 1963, bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four young black girls, Simone spoke and performed at civil rights meetings and wrote protest songs like “Mississippi Goddam” giving voice to her outrage. She wasn’t an adherent of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolent approach, either. Instead, she favored the more radical activism of Malcolm X, her neighbor in Mount Vernon, New York.

The show takes its title and shape from another of her compositions, “Four Women,” which challenges the euro-centric standards imposed on black women and explores the internalized dilemma of defining beauty for four women with skin tones ranging from light to dark. In addition to Simone, brilliantly played by Sydney Charles, they represent stereotypes of African American womanhood. Dark-skinned Sarah (Deanna Reed-Foster), who refers to herself as “Auntie,” is a maid who has worked in white people’s houses for years. Fair enough to pass, the privileged Sephronia (Ariel Richardson) is active in the movement and tormented by the fact that her white father raped her mother. Caramel-toned Sweet Thing (Melanie Brezill) is a flamboyant hooker who has a beef with Sephronia (over a man) and has no qualms about getting any money she can from the misfortunes of others.

The playwright sets the action in the bombed-out 16th Street Baptist Church, a soaring hulk with shattered stained-glass windows powerfully realized by Christopher Rhoton’s scenic design and Lee Fiskness’s lighting. Simone, carefully coiffed and dressed in a black sheath and heels by costume designer Michael Alan Stein, has apparently come there seeking inspiration for the song she’s writing. Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon, she’s accompanied by her brother Sam Waymon (Daniel Riley) on piano.

As she’s trying to work, the other women wander in one at a time, escaping the violence outside that’s frighteningly audible in Lindsay Jones’ sound design. Sarah, who has no idea who Simone is, arrives first, followed later by Sephronia, who is a fan of the singer. Sweet Thing, who seems to be Sephronia’s half-sister, is last and arguably the most changed by the experience.

Simone, a volatile personality with a sense of entitlement in Charles’s fierce performance, is irritated by these interruptions and gets into heated discussions and arguments with the others about a variety of subjects related to civil rights, racism, and gender discrimination. She points out to Dr. King follower Sephronia, for instance, that his movement relegates women to second-class status, and she chastises Sweet Thing and Sarah for some aspects of their behavior.

The format also allows Simone to reveal autobiographical information, though this exposition is occasionally awkward despite Kenneth L Roberson’s careful direction and Charles’s skill at capturing her precise style of speaking and her prickly nature. She says more than once, for example, that she plays “classical” black music and notes that when she sang “I Loves You, Porgy,” she always corrected the grammar to “love.” Angry to the point of being enraged, and terribly unhappy, she makes the audience as uncomfortable as she does the three other women, all of whom are played in a way that makes them individuals as well as types.

For me, though, the most compelling reason to see “Nina Simone: Four Women” is the music, and I wish there were more of it. All the songs, from several traditional hymns to “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” an adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry’s unpublished play, are moving. My favorites are Simone’s “Sinnerman” and Oscar Brown, Jr’s “Brown Baby,” which highlights all four women’s wonderful voices and harmonies.