Growing up, Sydney Michelle Nelson’s North Avondale home was full of music, from Motown to funk to pop. Her parents often played and replayed tracks by artists like Earth, Wind & Fire, Diana Ross, and Michael Jackson.
The schools Nelson went to were too small to have large theater programs, but Nelson nurtured a love of performance by attending and later staffing summer day camps at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. No matter what other careers she considered—a doctor, a fashion designer—her love for theater stuck with her, and she eventually decided to attend DePaul University in Chicago to study acting.
Once at DePaul, Nelson began considering whether acting was the right branch of the theater department for her, and eventually switched to theater arts, which would give her a broader base of skills that could translate into all sorts of different aspects of production.
“It took Sydney [some time] to find her niche in the theatre arts program, but when she did, wow, she hit the ground running,” says Barry Brunetti, former chair of DePaul’s theatre studies department and Nelson’s former academic advisor. “I think Sydney made a big jump when she discovered that she herself could be a very confident and productive person.”
With writing, directing, and acting skills now in her repertoire, Nelson was well-equipped to finish off her senior year with an ambitious project: a one-woman show, A Diva’s Bedroom.
A Diva’s Bedroom is a semi-autobiographical work, inspired by all the times in Nelson’s life—from childhood into the present—when she would put on a show for herself in her bedroom to the tunes of all the greats that set the soundtrack of her life.
“Whenever I wanted to take my mind off of things, I would always turn on Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson, and Beyoncé, and literally just mimic them in front of my mirror as if I was giving a performance to a crowd of people,” Nelson says.
With her one-woman show, Nelson puts her bedroom on stage and uses those performances to try and redefine the word “diva.”
The term “diva” was originally used to describe a famous female opera singer, and later came to mean any famous female singer, but it also has a negative connotation—it implies self-importance, haughtiness, and arrogance. As Nelson researched all the black female performers that would become part of her script, she noticed how often “diva” was used to describe them. It was a constricting term, she thought, that did not allow these women to be three-dimensional, imperfect human beings.
Nelson wanted her show to interpret the meaning of diva as something different: a hardworking woman that’s dedicated to getting what she wants. “I learned that from all of those women that I included in my show, and even talking about the women in my family because they are also hard workers themselves,” Nelson says.
Nelson had just three weeks to put the production together, with the help of a crew that consisted predominantly of female friends and peers. Music, choreography, and acting came together in a show that her audiences found to be a refreshing celebration of black female talent.
“I want more theater to show that black women are just as joyful; we can laugh, we can be vulnerable,” Nelson says. “And not every day is like a terrible struggle—even though we do struggle every day—but also just showing the joy that we can also bring to the world and bring to other people.”
Nelson presented the show for three days at DePaul, and is now refining it and pitching it to theater spaces across Chicago to bring the production there once they reopen.
She was chosen by her peers to give the student address at DePaul Theatre School’s virtual commencement, where she spoke about her own confidence in the future, despite the strange and historic circumstances of this year’s graduating class.
“She is ambitious in the best sense of that word,” Brunetti says. “She is going to get out there and look for opportunities and try to make opportunities for herself.”