Rep’s Nina Simone Play a Puzzle

'Nina Simone: Four Women' is really not a play at all, but the singing is stunning.

By - Apr 23rd, 2024 01:41 pm
Milwaukee Repertory Theater presents Nina Simone: Four Women in the Quadracci Powerhouse, April 16 – May 12, 2024. Pictured: Gabrielle Lott-Rogers, Brittney Mack, Alexis J Roston, Toni Martin, and Matthew Harris. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Milwaukee Repertory Theater presents Nina Simone: Four Women in the Quadracci Powerhouse, April 16 – May 12, 2024. Pictured: Gabrielle Lott-Rogers, Brittney Mack, Alexis J Roston, Toni Martin, and Matthew Harris. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

With a fabulous lead singer and three accomplished partners, the Milwaukee Rep is presenting a first-class shout-and-holler concert of blues, gospel, spiritual classics and the best compositions of Nina Simone.

Problem is, it is pretending to be a play, and the very final play at that for the Quadracci Powerhouse main stage, which will undergo a major renovation that sends next season’s subscription audience to a variety of locales while the upgrade is underway.

This final season offering, called Nina Simone: Four Women, is dressed up by an interesting author Christina Ham, who is clearly fascinated by Black history. She in effect divides the generic Black woman into four specifics who argue with each other in long, tired debates about what to do with their anger and pain over treatment by whites. Nina and the other three women frequently interrupt this debate to sing and stomp in gospel strength – and what fine singing and gospel movement!

Along the way they are frequently startled by sound and lighting shocks that a patron might hope was an effort to look inside Nina Simone’s head, since she was a demanding imperious soul artist, trained as a classical pianist who became a giant of often political songs with a fervent spiritual edge – and the story of her life is one of sadness and emotional shocks much like the sound effects from designer Sartje Pickett and the abrupt lighting changes from designer Jason Lynch.

But the play makes clear that the stage shocks, and the murmuring voices of children over the loudspeakers, are based on a true event – Simone’s outrageous and great anthem, “Mississippi Goddamn,” was written from her lingering rage over the June 12, 1963, murder of Medgar Evers and then that same year’s September 15 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four young Black girls. Ham’s play and the stage design insist these wounds haven’t healed.

Simone’s anthem and the death of the Black girls prove central to the four-sided debate and the theatrical flash and bang, but they are a mainly dialogue regurgitation of arguments theater patrons have heard before. We just wait eagerly for the singing to begin again.

The main attraction as Simone is Alexis J. Roston, a singer of immense authority. The Rep audience has seen her before at the Stackner Cabaret’s Ella Fitzgerald tribute in 2021 (which we reviewed), and her vocal skills are so commanding as to defy easy description: soprano? alto? – whatever, she mesmerizes us with dusky lows and soaring highs.

Any excuse to hear her is worthwhile, and she wraps an aura around the Simone numbers (“To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” “Old Jim Crow”) as well as blues and gospel standard like “Trouble in Mind” and “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” — joined in “Sparrow” by powerful gospel singer Gabrielle Lott-Rogers as the God-fearing black maid who is arguing with her.

Also joining the debate and the singing and stomping are Toni Martin as the white-looking Sephronia who is the angriest marcher for freedom and Brittney Mack as the defiant hooker coiled in anger until she unleashes a pretty formidable soprano of her own.

While Simone was famed for doing her own piano-playing, here it is associate music director Matthew Harris who steps out quietly to play the stride piano, maintaining silence if not invisibility.

With such singers, director Malkia Stampley had only to direct stage traffic along with cue timing, while the technical crew kept the audience’s eyes and ears occupied. Frankly, Stampley is a talented enough stage veteran that she should have taken a knife to Ham’s dialogue or insisted on more human balance within the debates.

Even with its theatrical effects, this work makes more sense for Stackner Cabaret.

A co-production with the Kansas City Repertory Theatre, Nina Simone: Four Women runs through May 12 as the final show at the Rep’s main theater. The new Powerhouse Theater will be named for philanthropists Ellen and Joe Checota.

Nina Simone: Four Women Gallery

Dominique Paul Noth served for decades as film and drama critic, later senior editor for features at the Milwaukee Journal. You’ll find his blog here and here.

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