PicksInSix Review: 'NINA SIMONE: FOUR WOMEN' Northlight Theatre
“FOLLOW THE RHYTHM OF YOUR HEART.”
The Northlight Theatre production of Christina Ham’s stunningly raw and musically rich 2016 play “Nina Simone: Four Women” directed by Kenneth L. Roberson that opened Friday at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie, is a stirring exploration of Simone’s creative journey in the wake of the September 13, 1963 murder of four African-American girls -- 14 year-old Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, and 11 year-old Denise McNair – in the KKK bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The tragedy of the girl’s death inspired Simone to compose “Mississippi Goddam,” “Old Jim Crow,” “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” and the iconic “Four Women,” and ignited her passion against social injustice, segregation and discrimination during the civil rights movement.
Set inside the ruins of the church in the immediate aftermath of the bombing, ‘Four Women’ features the gifted Sydney Charles as Simone, a musical force of nature, who rose from humble beginnings to the forefront of the jazz music world before her ideology was forever shaken and altered by the devastating attack. Simone’s transitional moment is at the core of the piece that the captivating and confident Charles deftly unearthes in the lush boundaries of her vocal range and a commanding performance that blisters with depth and empathy.
The play resides securely alongside Simone’s dreams and creative aspirations, evolving from a series of anguished, defiant, and, ultimately, hopeful conversations using the framework of her music as a rallying cry, never diverting away from the searing memory of the four girls fate or the civil unrest that is brewing.
Deanna Reed-Foster (Sarah), Ariel Richardson (Sephronia), Melanie Brezill (Sweet Thing) and Charles are the ‘Four Women’ of Simone’s profound elegy to the memory of the girls and who they might have become. As each identifies and struggles with African-American stereotypes, legacy and misunderstanding, Simone implores them as a group to rise up and “follow the rhythm of your heart.” Through their individual stories, and the rich, soulful and powerfully rendered musical performances, a deeper understanding emerges of heritage, common ground and the conflicts between the women and everyone around them.
Christopher Rhoton’s robust scenic design is a constant reminder of the deadly aftermath of the attack. The stark lighting and sound by Lee Fiskness and Lindsay Jones accentuate Michael Alan Stein’s costumes which define each of the four women. The talented Daniel Riley is the on-stage accompanist and music director.
Northlight’s production is one of eight others currently planned in the months ahead which led American Theatre magazine to name Ham among the top 20 most-produced playwrights of the 2018-19 season. There is also a companion piece for young audiences, “Four Little Girls: Birmingham 1963,” which was commissioned for the 50th anniversary of the bombing and debuted at the Kennedy Center and 47 other locations around the country.
NINA SIMONE: FOUR WOMEN
through March 2nd
North Shore Center for the Performing Arts
9501 Skokie Blvd.
CHRISTINA HAM WEBSITE
For more reviews, visit: Theatre In Chicago