Pictured (L to R): Deana Reed-Foster, Melanie Brezill, Sydney Charles, Daniel Riley, and Ariel Richardson. Photo by: Michael Brosilow.
Very many shows are about Black women, but Northlight Theatre’s production of “Nina Simone: Four Women” is also for Black women. This does not preclude all other audiences from enjoying playwright Christina Ham’s deeply satisfying ride of tragedy, soul, and ultimately triumph; this is simply a story written in the Mother Tongue.
“Four Women” is a dramatization of the Nina Simone song of the same title, which gives composites of four stereotypes historically placed upon black women; the “Jezebel,” or sexually promiscuous woman, the “Sapphire” or angry Black woman, the “Mammy,” a sexless, servile, motherly figure, and the “Tragic Mulatto,” the interracial outcast. The play allows Black women to transcend these societally imposed boundaries and become three-dimensional humans – a luxury not afforded to Nina during her too-short life.
Sydney Charles, one of Chicago’s most talented actors, pays spectacular homage to Simone, subtly adopting her regal carriage and often brusque manner without becoming a caricature. She morphs chameleon-like into the complex portrait of a woman whose genius and promise has been robbed by the cruel hand of colorism and sexism, the bitter manifestation of what happens to Langston Hughes’ dream deferred. Her haunting voice spreads lushly through the room, crooning heartbreaking iconic songs from Simone’s canon like “Brown Baby.” When she sings the words “It makes me glad you gonna have things that I never had/When out of men’s heart all hate is hurled/Sweetie you gonna live in a better world/Brown baby brown baby brown baby” she sings hope for a future she will never see, and that nearly 60 years later, has yet to be realized.
The characters coalesce in the aftermath of the 1963 16th Baptist Church bombing that killed four little girls, grappling with the immediate and devastating emotional impact of the Black community, and the visceral need to decide how to respond. Ariel Richardson is electrifying as Sephronia, blindly propelled to the front lines by righteous anger and the class advantages of colorism that confer membership to the elite “Talented Tenth,” and slight cover in the face of violence. Deana Reed-Foster is heartbreakingly powerful as Sarah, a woman who cannot afford the luxury of revolution because her family must eat. Through her, we see the insidious side of the ever-changing meaning and legacy of the moniker “Auntie,” currently back in vogue through the popularity of Maxine Waters. And Melanie Brezill is raw and vulnerable as Sweet Thing, a woman on the wrong side of respectability politics; the type of loose woman for whom the revolution does not acknowledge.
Historically, the Black community has turned to faith in times of tragedy, and Simone, a composer of Black Classical music, was raised on gospel and Black traditional music, and made her career singing popular jazz standards. But after the bombing, her faith is shaken and she becomes impatient with the too slow arrival of justice. She begins to deprogram her mind and births the explosive song “Mississippi Goddam.” Ironically, the stiff language and power of her words and delivery elicit faux outrage from the sensibilities of her white fan base more than daily societal injustices, a trend that continues today in political discourse.
Director Kenneth L. Roberson has delivered a triumphant vision of Simone’s body of work that acknowledges that her songs should hold a place in our collective consciousness as revered as Dylan’s protest songs. As the women’s exquisite voices rise in harmony and power, accompanied by the expert music direction of Daniel Riley, the sounds merging and falling over each other like tears, the theatre is filled with the keening pain of enduring, the reclamation of dignity, and the agony of creative rebirth. Northlight Theatre’s outstanding production of “Nina Simone: Four Women” explores a myriad of narratives, a revealing peek into the heart of what it means to be young, gifted, and black.
“Nina Simone: Four Women” runs through March 2nd. For more information visit northlight.org.