Nina Simone: Four Women. Gospel to Jazz to Protest to Anthem @MKERep

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Nina Simone: Four Women bridges the divide between drama, musical, cabaret, and social commentary using songs that run the gamut from the titles description, gospel, jazz, protest, and finally anthem. Many of these songs were written or co-written by Nina Simone.

left to right: Gabrielle Lott-Rogers, Brittney Mack, Alexis J Roston, Toni Martin and Matthew Harris at the piano. Photo Courtesy of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater.

Nina Simone: Four Women the play is built from the concept that Simone incorporated in her song, Four Women. She provides us with four characters who represent in some ways, the stereotypes and in others, the realities of life for Black women in America in the mid-1960s. The four women in the song and the play are Aunt Sarah, a servant, to Sephronia, a light skinned young woman, to Sweet Thing, a street tough prostitute, to Peaches, a version of Simone herself.

The play opens in Simone’s studio where she is angry and grieving after the murder of Medgar Evers and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. She is determined to write a serious and definitive protest song about those events and civil rights. But she is struggling as she moves from looking at her sheets of music and lyrics to picking out notes on her grand piano. And as time elapses during the play she moves her desire from writing a protest song to creating an Anthem. But along the way she feels and hears the explosions from Birmingham in her mind and the other characters eventually seem to appear out of these episodes.

Alexis J Roston Photo Courtesy of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater.

Alexis J. Roston is an appropriately angry and determined Nina Simone as she struggles with her composition, and my goodness, can she sing! And she very effectively plays off of the other characters as they appear…changing from anger to indignation to empathy and back again. And actively pointing out that they are in truth, all in this together.

Her first interruption is Aunt Sarah in a maid’s outfit and obviously Simone’s maid. But Auntie’s interruption isn’t well received and their views on how to react to events and how to participate in the civil rights movement are in some opposition. Gabrielle Lott-Rogers gives us the calm contained Auntie who at times seems to tease Simone’s efforts at an anthem…and Lott-Rogers too is an amazing songstress here.

right to left: Gabrielle Lott-Rogers, and Toni Martin. Photo Courtesy of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater.

Toni Martin makes the scene as Sephronia, a light skinned Black woman who feels trapped between two cultures. But she is active in Doctor King’s Civil Rights movement and proud to be a participant. And she encourages the other women, particularly Simone to get involved. There is a bit of banter here about Simone’s position in life as a successful entertainer. But Simone insists her best course is to write and record her anthem. Both women are clearly sure of their positions…and Martin gives us a clear picture of a young energized activist.

And finally we have Sweet Thing, a street tough, knife carrying, prostitute, ready to take whatever advantage she can of her position. Brittney Mack has the proper cat like menace to bring the character to life on the Rep’s Quadracci Powerhouse Stage.

And finally we experience the song, Four Women, with all four actresses bringing their personas to the tune until it finally explodes with Simone as Peaches. But scrolling back, we realize all four of these characters came from the mind of Nina Simone to populate her anthem. A timely telling and an exquisite interpretation from Director Malkia Stampley.

Alexis J Roston and Matthew Harris. Photo Courtesy of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater.

And thank heaven for Mathew Harris who plays Sam Wayman who plays Simone’s grand piano so all of these wonderful actors can entertain us with their songs.

Nina Simone: Four Women continues at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s Quadracci Powerhouse throught May 12, 2024. Additional information and ticket ordering here~

And Extra Credit Reading: The Program and The Playbill!