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!

The Chosen, @ Milwaukee Repertory; Directed By Aaron Posner

This play features only four characters, two fathers and their respective and respectful sons. They share a neighborhood and an abiding faith, but all four live in worlds apart. And the stories that come from that faith and family and love are the things that we are shown here can both unite and divide us, all at the same time…and that secrets can be powerful teachers or hurtful events but can seldom remain secrets for very long in close knit communities.

And no, despite the compelling graphic used to promote The Chosen, this isn’t actually a story about baseball. Baseball is an allegory here. And a way to introduce the characters and bring two of their worlds together…and to show the influence of ‘America’ on tradition based Old World communities. But it is not contemporary America…it is the America of the Second World War and milestone events from that period play a role in how our story unfolds.

Reuven Malter, Reb Saunders, Daniel Saunders. Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater.

Worlds apart, or so it seems. Hasidic Rabbi Reb Saunders is the patriarch of a community that he has brought to America to escape the violence in their home nation. Rabbi Saunders is the sixth generation of his family to lead the community and his eldest son, Daniel, is expected to eventually take his place. And that other world is just a few blocks away, conservative, and is represented by David Malter, described here as an intellectual. He is know to the Saunders for his writing on faith and the law. And his son is Reuven Malter, a student of mathematics, and is expected to attend college and eventually become a college professor. Both families study the Torah and Talmud and are described as observant of the law. But there are always questions. They all are always questioning.

Rabbi Reb Saunders Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater.

The boys attend the appropriate religious schools and at some point during the war it apparently was decided that the schools would support baseball teams to show their mettle as Americans. And that brings us to that fateful day on the ball field when they meet for the first time and wind through an abundance of emotions that go well beyond the simple rivalry on the field. Until that calamitous moment on the field that eventually brings their worlds together and eventually sends them into different orbits. Always questioning.

Reuven Malter Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater.

A sub-topic here is bridges. But in the story, our major, active, bridge across all worlds is Reuven Malter. Initially and at other pivots in the action, as an adult, he explains the backstory and the key events as prelude and exposition. Within the action he acts as a bridge between Danny and Reb, between Danny and the secular world, between Hasid and Conservative narratives, and something of a mouthpiece for his father. But there are always questions. You probably won’t be surprised that as the boys grow to men and venture off to college together that they decide to follow different paths than those assigned to them.

Danny Saunders and Reuven Malter Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater.

Aaron Posner adapted The Chosen with Chaim Potok from Potok’s book of the same name. It is certainly a bonus that Posner directs this presentation for the Milwaukee Repertory. His casting and direction are so incredibly spot on and the movement is so fluid that one has barely time to laugh at the humor or gasp at the horror or tear up for the sadness.

Ron Orbach is awesome as Reb Saunders, a seeming self-assured, direct, teacher and authoritarian for much of the play who then melts away to be the tender and understanding father. But he befuddles his son by his silence. His son, Danny, played by Hillel Rosenshine, who himself amazes as the youthful, wondering, and a bit fearful high school boy and aggressive ball player. His ball field nemesis and eventual best friend, Reuven, is played by Eli Mayer. And Mayer, also brings us an aggressive ball player, but the tender son…and the very adult and instructive narrator of the play. His father, David Malter, is played by Steve Routman, a firm but loving father, but someone who has a secret of his own that straddles these two worlds and helps bring the boys together.

Danny Saunders, David Malter, Reuven Malter, Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater.

I don’t want to give too much else away here but there are some history lessons to be learned and some social cues to be heeded. And yes, it resonates in 2024 despite be dated to 1944/45. And, yes, a story that should be experienced.

The Chosen runs at the Milwaukee Rep’s Quadracci Powerhouse main stage theater through March 31, 2024. Tickets and more information can be found here!

Extra Credit Readings: The Program and The Playguide

article © 2024 The New World Digs

PSA: The Milwaukee Repertory Theater Announces Their Movable Feast…I Mean Their 2024/2025 season!

Here’s the link to their webpage outlining the new season (although I am including snippets below) and here is the link to order subscription tickets!!! There are a number of subscription options so read carefully.

Join us for 12 world-class productions, three of which will take will take place off-site while the new Associated Bank Theater Center is under construction. 

For our 2024/25 Season we are excited to offer 12 productions that are sure to entertain and inspire. Discover remarkable performances, soul-shaking rhythms, fresh takes on classics and bold world premieres. This season includes:

  • * A World Premiere musical based off the Pulitzer Prize finalist and Tony-nominated play by Craig Lucas, Prelude to a Kiss: The Musical.
  • * Two World Premiere musicals created by Artistic Director Mark Clements in the Stackner Cabaret – Women of Rock and The Craic.
  • * A Studio Season with the regional premiere of The Coast Starlight direct from Lincoln Center and a bilingual play, Espejos: Clean.
  • * The acclaimed London West End production of The Woman in Black with its stellar British cast
Don’t miss Milwaukee’s favorite holiday tradition, A Christmas Carol celebrating its 49th Anniversary in the historic Pabst Theater with Rep favorite Matt Daniels returning as Ebenezer Scrooge.

and extra credit reading: information on the rebuilding of the Rep spaces and their capital campaign can be found here.

article © 2024 The New World Digs