Playwright: Christina Ham
At: Northlight Theatre at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie. Tickets: Northlight.org; 847-673-6300; $30-$88. Runs through: March 2
Nina Simone is nowadays more often referenced for her historical significance than for her artistic accomplishments.
Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon, the daughter of ordained ministers and a recognized prodigy, her music education was hindered by the racial prejudice prevalent throughout the Southern United States in the mid-20th century. After forging a career singing in Greenwich Village jazz clubs under the stage name of Nina Simone, a concert in Alabama, coming at the height of the civil-rights movement in 1963, was interrupted by an explosion as a neighboring church with a predominantly Black congregation was bombed by segregationist terrorists. The discovery of children among the dead spurred Simone to a fury reflected in her compositions from that day forth.
The most widely-copied of these was "Four Women"a collection of first-person monologues spoken by four African-American female archetypes who recount the diversity of abuse inflicted upon them by social status based in likewise differing degrees of skin pigmentation. The ironies revealed thereby provide playwright Christina Ham with the inspiration for this 95-minute play, which brings together representatives of the song's personae for an impromptu symposium amid the shattered ruins of the sanctuary now surrounded by the clash of warring factions.
A text where every sentence deserves to be carved on a monument ( "Nonviolence is only praised when Negroes practice it" ) risks drowning in its own eloquence, and while audiences familiar with Black Ensemble's biorevues may exercise more patience toward Ham's check-list of grievances, the opening night at Northlight Theatre could not help but succumb to occasional moments of marching-in-place.
Fortunately, music directors/arrangers Daniel Riley and Darius Smith ( the former of whom doubles onstage in the role of piano-man Sam Waymon ) have assembled a quartet of vocalists capable of stirring us to rapture, whether on a cappella chorale harmonies of hymns like "Eye on the Sparrow," revivalist rousers like "Sinner Man" or the centerpiece call-to-arms "Mississippi Goddam."
The curtain call doesn't incorporate an encore ( yet ), but if future productions opt to include a reprise of that anthem, you may find yourself raising your own voice in responsive affirmation.