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Horrific tragedy transforms singer into activist in ‘Nina Simone: Four Women’

Sydney Charles stars as Nina Simone in "Nina Simone: Four Women" at Northlight Theatre. | Michael Brosilow

Sydney Charles (foreground) stars as the legendary jazz singer Nina Simone in "Nina Simone: Four Women" at Northlight Theatre. | Michael Brosilow

When Nina Simone released “Mississippi Goddam” in 1964, it marked a momentous turn in the career of the Julliard-trained piano prodigy. Simone was widely known as an entertainer who made a top-20 hit of George Gershwin’s “I Loves You Porgy,” (which she changed to the grammatically correct “I Love You Porgy”). But the 1963 murders of Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Carol Denise McNair forced a course change for Simone. After the four children were killed when Klansmen bombed the Birmingham, Alabama, 16th Street Baptist Church, Simone was galvanized toward activism.

In the opening moments of Christina Ham’s “Nina Simone: Four Women,” we see that transition unfold. At first, Simone (Sydney Charles) is crooning through the slow-dance friendly sweetness of “Porgy.” She’s glamorous in a sequined top and sheltered by the spotlight, apart from the world. Suddenly, we hear a massive explosion. The next time we see Simone, she’s in black, picking through a ruin of broken glass and rubble. She’s come to 16th Street Baptist to write a song to make her martini-sipping concertgoers “choke on their olives.”

‘Nina Simone: Four Women’
★★★1⁄2
When: Through March 2
Where: Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie
Tickets: $15-$88
Info: Northlight.org

Simone is quickly joined by the women contained in the lyrics of her song, “Four Women.” Sarah (Deanna Reed-Foster) is the maternal, God-fearing housekeeper. Sephronia (Ariel Richardson) is the child of rape, an outcast who (per the song) lives between worlds. Sweet Thing (Melanie Brezill) is a switchblade-wielding prostitute. Simone herself eventually steps into the role of Peaches, singing this:

“My skin is brown/my manner is tough
I’ll kill the first mother I see/my life has been too rough”

The song was banned from the airwaves initially — a clear indication that it accomplished the sudden, dangerous awareness that Simone strove to instill in her music.

Simone aside, the women of “Nina Simone” are archetypes more than actual, full-fledged characters. That’s the risk you take in turning a four-minute song into a full-length drama. The lyrics of “Four Women” are powerful in part because they hit with the shocking brevity of a hammer blow. Blown up into a 90-minute story, they lose that intense impact. There’s also a problem with the conflicts that arise in Ham’s play. They melt away when the singing starts, rear up again when it stops. That doesn’t happen in real life, and it feels like artifice on stage.

Still, director Kenneth L. Roberson’s staging lets you see — or at least glimpse — the muses and the furies that drove Simone. Moreover, Charles’ performance makes you forgive the contrivances of the plot. She paces like a restless panther in the rubble of the church, fingers twitching like something inside is trying to get out. She berates and bullies the other women on stage, carrying herself with the imperiousness of a queen and commanding the respect of one. When she unleashes her vocal cords, she becomes a living, breathing wake-up call.

There’s unbarred venom in her voice when Simone blasts the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., for barring women from his March on Washington (they were relegated to side streets, she notes, separate and behind the men). When she slams King’s gospel of peaceful protest as being “too slow,” the phrase becomes a mantra.

Ariel Richardson (front, from left), Melanie Brezill, Deanna Reed-Foster and (back, from left) Sydney Charles and Daniel Riley" in a scene from "Nina Simone: Four Women" at Northlight Theatre. | Michael Brosilow

Ariel Richardson (from left), Sydney Richards, Melanie Brezill, Daniel Riley and Deanna Reed-Foster in a scene from “Nina Simone: Four Women” at Northlight Theatre. | Michael Brosilow

The supporting cast is fearless in digging into taboo issues, often with language that highlights the endless cruelty and disrespect faced by women of color. These women do violence to each other, even as they try to escape violence from the outside world. The tension peaks in Charles’ emotionally eviscerating rendition of “Mississippi, Goddam.” It’s harrowing, as it should be. Charles lets you hear the scream buried in the contralto.

Daniel Riley’s music direction is all-important, from the cataclysmic rage of the title song to the lush harmonies of “His Eye is on the Sparrow” to the fire-and-brimstone thunder of “Sinnerman.” Riley is on stage accompanying the women throughout. He uses the piano to segue between scenes, providing “Four Women” with a seamless sonic through-line.

The atmosphere is indelibly rendered by scenic designer Christopher Rhoton’s rendition of 16th Street Baptist Church after the bombing: The jagged, gaping holes in the stained glass capture the towering grandeur of the sacred space and the unfathomable violence that occurred there.

You could sum up “Four Women” in single line: “When words falter, music doesn’t.” That’s how Simone explains her compulsion to change the world in songs. “Nina Simone: Four Women” stays true to those words. Even when the world is in shambles, the music doesn’t falter.

Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.