In the aftermath of 1963’s 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, Nina Simone rocked the nation with “Four Women,” her tribute in song to the four little girls lost in the tragedy. Powerful anthems such as “Mississippi Goddam,” “Old Jim Crow,” and “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” followed, fueling the Civil Rights movement and transforming her public persona from songstress to activist. Celebrate Ms. Simone’s lasting legacy in this provocative and personal musical journey.
Nina Simone: Four Women is produced by special arrangement with Alexis Williams, BRET ADAMS, LTD., 448 West 44th Street, New York, NY 10036. www.bretadamsltd.net
Nina Simone: Four Women was commissioned by Park Square Theatre, St. Paul, Minnesota. Richard Cook, Artistic Director, C. Michael-Jon Pease, Executive Director and received its first public performance on March 8, 2016
Production photos by Michael Brosilow, Promotional photos by Greg Inda
by Chris Jones
February 4, 2019
‘Nina Simone: Four Women’ at Northlight Theatre is the singer in the ’60s, in church bombing aftermath
Nina Simone seemed happy in the 1980s, singing in Ronnie Scott’s swinging London jazz club, a resident European star in front an adoring audience, wowing with the incomparable diversity of her repertoire, enjoying her still-potent influence on any number of signature artists from the Beatles to Elton John. Finding warmth but still embodying cool.
You could imagine a concert-style stage show about the Simone of that era, a piece about a troubled genius who finally had started to enjoy her public, and maybe even come to terms with the disparity between the music she loved and the music she could sell.
The Simone song that most interests Ham is her self-penned “Mississippi Goddam,” an anthem that didn’t so much express pain as raw anger at the Old South — as concisely expressed by two words as any lyric from any song in that era. Over the years, the song has come to occupy a similar place to “Strange Fruit” in the cabaret repertoire of many a blues singer. It is a moment when people stop talking, swallow their drink hard and, in some cases, feel their own complicity. It’s a song that banishes any and all romanticism; it was as if Simone barely could set it to music, barely could bother with the requisite notes, so much does the lyrical sentiment overtake anything dangling underneath.
“Mississippi Goddam,” which Simone, all the way up to her death, said was held against her, similarly is the centerpiece of Charles’ performance. It is a formidable rendition; one among many.
Charles has come up through Chicago’s storefront movement and she is remarkably well cast in director Kenneth L. Roberson’s production. She doesn’t, as would some, have Ronnie Scott’s veneer to shake off. On the contrary. She is naturally intimidating and goes right to where Simone would have been in that moment.
by Rick and Brenda McCain
February 4, 2019
The Woman Behind the Music
Christina Ham brings a profound story to the stage about the most honest woman in America during the civil rights movement era with Nina Simone: Four Women. Based on the part of the title of the play “Four Women” a song written by Nina Simone about four different African American women with varying tones of skin ranging from light to dark and how each one represents an African American stereotype in society is the framework for the play.
Set in the aftermath of destruction where a terrible act of white supremacist terrorism took place on Sunday, September 15, 1963 where a church bombing took place in Birmingham, Alabama, four girls Cynthia Wesley (14), Denise McNair (11), Carol Robertson and Addie Mae Collins (14) lost their lives at 16th Street Baptist Church. In a profound segment of this play, the ladies speak these four little angels souls back to life as they proudly echo their names so history would never forget them.
Leading this powerful cast of ‘Black Girl Magic’ is award-winning actress Sydney Charles (Flyin’ West, Father Comes Home From The War, and Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner) who played the influential recording artists Nina Simone. Charles is phenomenal as Simone, she nailed this role with the mannerism and style. If awards are given, she deserves top honors for this performance. The cast which includes Melanie Brezill, Deanna Reed-Foster, Ariel Richardson, and Daniel Riley are exceptional and make Nina Simone: Four Women at Northlight Theatre a 5-star play.
by Hedy Weiss
February 4, 2019
How Nina Simone Tapped into the Pain of African-American Women
Christina Ham’s play, “Nina Simone: Four Women,” now in a feverishly acted Northlight Theatre production directed by Kenneth L. Roberson, is the anatomy of a song. And by extension, it is the anatomy of the angry, emotionally wounded singer, songwriter, pianist and civil rights activist of the title who wrote it, and who is seen at a pivotal moment in her life. It also is a vivid reminder of a horrific, galvanizing moment in the life of the civil rights movement itself.
The time is September 1963, shortly after four members of the Ku Klux Klan bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, on a Sunday morning, leaving four young black girls blown to bits and many other people injured. (Christopher Rhoton’s remarkable set, with its wall of shattered stained glass windows and its splintered wood floorboards, captures the carnage of the scene to haunting effect.)
Of course the primary force that drives the story here is the already semi-famous Simone, whose profoundly troubled marriage, troubling role as a mother, and self-exile to Europe and Africa is yet to come, but whose mix of self-hatred and exceptionalism is expertly channeled by Charles, an actress-singer of smoldering intensity who rips the stuffing out of each of her songs. (Something wonderful also happens when the four women join voices to create superb harmonies.)
That said, there are countless reasons to see “Four Women,” and to be reminded of just how ahead of her time Simone herself happened to be.
by Sheri Flanders
February 7, 2019
‘Nina Simone: Four Women’ at Northlight
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.
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.
“Thanks to a gifted cast, the numbers shine like jewels” – Newcity Stage
“The cast is fearless” – Chicago Sun-Times
“Northlight’s production is a thrill. Top-tier design, incredible cast” – Storefront Rebellion
Melanie is thrilled to make her Northlight Theatre debut! Broadway and National Tours: The Book of Mormon and Mamma Mia!. Regional credits include: Little Shop of Horrors, Aida (Drury Lane); Last Stop on Market Street, My Wonderful Birthday Suit, and The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane (Chicago Children’s Theatre); Man In the Ring, Caroline, Or Change (Court); A Christmas Carol, Crowns (Goodman); The MLK Project (Writers); Yeast Nation (American Theater Company); Living Green (Victory Gardens); Once On This Island (Porchlight). TV Credits: Empire. Next up: For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf at Court Theatre. She would like to thank her family, friends, and Stewart Talent for their love and support!
Sydney is an award-winning actress hailing from Chicago, who committed her life to acting after years in Corporate America. Select Chicago credits: Flyin West (American Blues), Father Comes Home From the Wars (Goodman), Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (Court), Insurrection: Holding History (Stage Left), Lottery Day (Goodman, New Stages), three editions of The Fly Honey Show (The Inconvenience), Spamilton Chicago (Royal George), An Octoroon (Definition Theatre), The Wiz (Kokandy), Prowess (Jackalope), and Dessa Rose (Bailiwick Chicago). Her directing debut was with Wildclaw Theatre with their yearly Deathscribe Festival of Horror Plays, and she just served as Associate Director for The Shipment at Red Tape Theatre. TV/Web: The Haven, The T, and Shameless (Showtime). She is proud to be an artistic associate with Firebrand Theater – the recently formed feminist musical theater company. Sydney thanks God for every opportunity and her circle for supporting her every step of the way. Represented by Stewart Talent.
Deanna is an Emmy Award and Jeff Award winning actress who is thrilled to be making her Northlight Theatre debut. She was last seen in SideShow Theatre’s HeLa. She has worked with many theaters in the Chicago area including Strawdog, Steppenwolf, Black Ensemble, Pulse Theatre, Court, Shattered Globe (Ensemble Member) and The New Colony (Ensemble Member). Deanna can be seen in a recurring role on NBC’s Chicago Fire and she can also be seen in several films like Widows, Last Flag Flying, Southside With You, and Roll Bounce. Deanna is represented by DDO Chicago.
Ariel is thrilled to be making her Northlight Theatre debut. An alum of Oklahoma City University; Ariel received her BFA in Acting. She was most recently seen in Oak Park Festival Theatre’s production of African Company Presets Richard III. Other theatre credits include Southern Gothic (Windy City Playhouse) and An Octoroon (Definition Theatre Company). Her television credits include Empire (FOX Television Network) and The CHI (Showtime). Ariel is represented by Stewart Talent. Endless love and thanks to her family and friends.
Sam Waymon/Music Director
Dan is thrilled to make his Northlight debut! Dan was last seen in American Blues Theater’s production of Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story (Jeff Award, Best Ensemble and Best Musical–Midsize). He has worked in theatre and cabaret with numerous groups in and around Chicago, most recently Paramount Theatre, Davenport’s Piano Bar, and the Ravinia Festival. Dan also coaches and accompanies soloists and choirs of all ages in many styles of music. He regularly sings at Holy Name Cathedral and with the Lakeside Singers, and can be seen Sunday mornings on WGN-TV singing for Mercy Home for Boys and Girls. Thanks to Kenneth and the team for the opportunity! “If music be the food of love, play on.”
Kenneth L. Roberson
Director credits: Ethel (Alliance Theatre and Alabama Shakespeare Festival); Crowns, Lady Day at the Emerson Bar and Grill (Arena Stage); Once on This Island (Baltimore Center Stage); Wycliffe Gordon’s Jazz a La Carte (Harlem Jazz Shrines Festival); Frog Kiss (Virginia Stage); Urinetown, Into The Woods and Pippin (Indiana University). Choreography Broadway and Off-Broadway: Avenue Q (Tony Award Best Musical), All Shook Up, Purlie, Colman Domingo’s A Boy and His Soul, John Lequizamo’s Freak, Seven Guitars and The Piano Lesson. Choreographer TV and Film: HBO’s Lackawanna Blues, Preaching to the Choir, and John Lequizamo’s House of Buggin’ (Emmy nomination outstanding choreography). Also a performance artist, his one man shows have played New York Public Theatre, Joe’s Pub the Triad Theatre, and Baltimore Center Stage. A graduate of the University of Georgia, he is currently Professor of Practice at Indiana University in the Theatre, Drama and Contemporary Dance Department.
Christina Ham’s plays have been developed and produced both nationally and internationally with the Kennedy Center, Arena Stage, Center Theater Group, The Guthrie Theater, Ensemble Studio Theatre, The Goodman Theatre, Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, Tony Award winning producer Arielle Tepper Madover off-Broadway at Theater Row, and the Tokyo International Arts Festival among many others. Christina is a two-time recipient of a McKnight Fellowship in Playwriting and a Jerome Fellowship from the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis, the Marianne Murphy Women & Philanthropy Award in Playwriting, a MacDowell Colony Artist Residency, and a previous nominee for Center Theater Group’s Richard E. Sherwood Award for Distinguished Emerging Theater Artist. She has received commissions from the Kennedy Center, The Guthrie Theater, and Ensemble Studio Theatre/Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, among many others. Her plays are published by Dramatic Publishing, Heinemann, PlayScripts, Inc., Smith and Kraus, and Oberon Books. She is a graduate of the University of Southern California and holds an MFA in Playwriting from The UCLA School of Theater, Film, and Television where she was a Graduate Opportunity Fellow.
Christopher is delighted to be designing for Northlight for the first time. He earned his M.F.A. in Scenic Design from Indiana University in 2015 and has been freelancing in Chicago since graduating. He regularly assists Kevin Depinet on productions in the Chicago area and all over the world. Recent productions include The Wizard of Oz (co-design with Kevin Depinet, Paramount Theatre), Into the Woods (Music Theater Works), A Chorus Line (Metropolis Performing Arts Center), Tuning In (Bloomington Playwrights Project), Tartuffe (Wheaton College), Seussical! (Drury Lane), and The Emperor’s New Clothes (Marriott). Huge thanks to Kenneth Roberson for this amazing opportunity to work together again. For more information, visit www.Christopher-Rhoton.com
Lee returns to Northlight theatre after having designed Souvenirs. He has designed for companies including Steppenwolf, Goodman, Chicago Shakespeare, Drury Lane, Marriott Theatre, Court, Writers, Victory Gardens, Windy City Playhouse, Lookingglass, Griffin, About Face, Manhattan School Of Music, Opera Colorado, Portland Opera, Kentucky Opera, People’s Light & Theatre, Milwaukee Repertory, Two River Theatre, Minneapolis Music Theatre, and others. He has worked on the lighting teams for TV shows including: The Oprah Winfrey Show, The Rosie Show, and The Steve Harvey Show, Fox Sports, and Chicago Bears Network. He received a MFA in Design from Northwestern University. Lee was the Lighting Director at The Santa Fe Opera where he worked for 17 seasons. www.leefiskness.com
Michael Alan Stein
Michael returns Northlight where he previously designed Thunder Knocking on the Door. Off-Broadway: Absolution (St. Luke’s Theatre); Happy Family, Devoted Dreams (Beckett Theatre); How to Write While Sleeping (Soho Rep). Chicago: Beauty’s Daughter (American Blues Theatre), Vivisections of a Blown Mind (Goodman); Nikki Giovanni: A New Song for a New Day, Geva: the Old Settler (Steppenwolf). Regional: The Christians, Seven Guitars (Baltimore Center Stage); Seven Guitars (St. Louis Black Rep); Colored Museum (Alliance Theatre); Thunder Knocking on the Door (Guthrie); In Walks Ed (Long Wharf). Film/TV: Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise (American Masters, PBS), L.A. Hair (We Network), Chicagoliscious (Style Network), The Drunk, The Truth, Of Boys and Men. Commercial credits include Walmart, Walgreens, McDonald’s. Education: Parsons School of Design, NYC. Awards: National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, Joseph Jefferson Citation, Joseph Jefferson Nom, 3 Black Theatre Alliance Awards. michaelalansteincostume.com.
Broadway: Slave Play, The Nap, Bronx Bombers, and A Time to Kill. Off Broadway: Privacy (The Public Theater), Bootycandy (Playwrights Horizons), Rx (Primary Stages), Top Secret (New York Theatre Workshop), and many others. International: Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford Festival, many others. Regional: South Coast Repertory, Arena Stage, Goodman, McCarter, Steppenwolf, Guthrie, Hartford Stage, Chicago Shakespeare, Woolly Mammoth, and others. Film scoring: The Brass Teapot (Magnolia Pictures) and the Academy Award–winning A Note of Triumph (HBO Films). Audio drama work includes A Streetcar Named Desire for Audible, and the award-winning weekly podcast for children The Imagination Neighborhood. Lindsay has received two Tony Award nominations for Best Score and Best Sound Design of a Play, seven Joseph Jefferson Awards and 24 nominations; two Ovation Awards and three nominations; and many others. www.lindsayjones.com.
Production Stage Manager
Rita Vreeland has been a frequent stage manager at Northlight since 2007, with Selling Kabul marking her 43rd production here. Other favorite recent projects include Ernest Shackleton Loves Me at Porchlight Music Theatre, A Christmas Carol at Drury Lane, The Luckiest at Raven Theatre, three years of The Polar Express Train Ride, and productions at Mercury Theatre, Victory Gardens, Route 66 Theatre Company, Theatre at the Center, and The Galway International Arts Festival in Galway, Ireland. She is the proud wife of actor Tom Hickey and mom to ten-year-old Charlie, and this year she celebrated her 22nd anniversary as a member of Actors’ Equity Association. Thank you for supporting live theatre!
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OPEN CAPTIONING – Nina Simone: Four Women, February 23, at 2:30pm
This performance will be open captioned. All seats do not provide a clear view of the captions. Please indicate your need for captioning when purchasing your tickets by phone 847.673.6300 to be seated in the correct area, or use the “Purchase by Seat” option when buying online (select the LEFT section and look for the symbol indicating seats for open captioning).