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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the October 16, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Crowns for Common Souls

Faith and fashion may seem an unlikely match, but in

the tradition of the African-American churchgoer they have become

a favorite fusion. "Back in slave times, Sunday was a special

day because that was the day, in some plantations, where you could

go into a clearing or a field for worship and praise," says playwright

Regina Taylor. "And if you had a bandanna and you put some flowers

on it, that was your hat." Taylor’s musical play "Crowns,"

a Gospel-driven celebration of church-going women and their hats,

has its world premiere this week at McCarter Theater.

Inspired by and adapted from the best-selling book "Crowns: A

Portrait of Black Women in Church Hats," a compendium of black-and-white

portrait photographs by Michael Cunningham and personal stories collected

by writer Craig Marberry, the musical pays homage to this cherished

cultural tradition. Opening night for "Crowns" is Friday,

October 18, for the production that runs to Sunday, November 3.

"Crowns’s" creation was set in motion in 1999 when writer

Craig Marberry approached Emily Mann in Greensboro, North Carolina,

where her documentary drama "Greensboro: A Requiem" was being

produced. Already familiar with Mann’s acclaimed play "Having

Our Say," an award-winning project that made the autobiography

of the Delany sisters a Broadway hit, Marberry told Mann he thought

she might do something comparable with their anthology of portrait

photographs and autobiographical sketches. Once he showed her his

as-yet unpublished book packed with stunning portraits by Cunningham,

Mann agreed, and McCarter Theater optioned the stage rights. Then

Mann sought out playwright Regina Taylor, who has spent the past two

years creating a dramatic version.

"I immediately felt a connection to all these women and knew the

possible power of this piece on stage," says Taylor. She immediately

envisioned "a Gospel music-driven piece, a crazy-quilt of music

and movement and storytelling.

"We’re doing the truths of their lives. What basically struck

me was that these hats reveal so much about them. They’re wonderful

windows into these women’s souls and that’s what we’re dealing with

in the play," she explains.

Creating a festive context for this week’s world premiere,

McCarter has teamed up with Ellarslie, the Trenton City Museum, to

bring the traveling exhibition of Cunningham’s "Crowns" portraits

to town. Installed in the museum’s upstairs galleries, the exhibition

of 30 large-scale portraits will be on view to November 5.

"In the community of women that I grew up in, women always wore

hats to church," says Taylor. "I was in church every Sunday

as a child. In looking at the book, and when I first started reading

the narratives, this common bond — this passing on of tradition

— was what struck me."

Taylor also wanted to know where the tradition came from. Once she

began her research, she traced it back to slave life on the plantation,

and to Africa before that.

"After slavery, in Jim Crow times, the place where you could go

to wear your special outfit and to wear your hat, was to church,"

she says. "But even before that, the tradition of adorning oneself

for worship is very African in nature. The head is holy — it’s

where spirits can come and go — and so the head should be covered.

The Bible also tells you to cover your head."

Fifty individual women are represented in the book, "Crowns,"

which opens with James Baldwin’s regal observation: "Our crowns

have been bought and paid for, all we have to do is wear them."

Working with the stories collected by Marberry, Taylor’s aim is to

honor the entire group. She says she has distilled the group of 50

forthright and fashion-conscious women down to six "essences,"

represented by the play’s six female characters.

Taylor’s artistic collaborators on "Crowns" include choreographer

Ronald K. Brown and composer Linda Twine. The "Crowns" women

are played by Carmen Ruby Floyd, Harriett D. Foy, Lynda Gravatt, Janet

Hubert, Ebony Jo-Ann, and Lillias White.

The stage version of "Crowns" was advanced when Taylor and

McCarter won a three-week residency at Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute

in Utah for its development. The annual Sundance Theater Laboratory

offers a diverse group of theater artists the time, space, and support

to develop their new theater works or to explore new approaches to

existing scripts, without the pressure of production. Robert Blacker,

director of the Theater Lab, says although Taylor’s play had had two

prior readings, Sundance got the show "on its feet." Working

with her choreographer and musicians, Taylor opened up the piece —

to let movement tell the story as well as words. All the actors sing,

and a keyboard and percussion duo accompanies the show.

Given this process of evolution, Taylor says she has now discovered

— just two weeks before the show’s opening — that, according

to Actors Equity standards, "Crowns" is a musical. "I

originally thought of it as a play with music, but now working with

the collaborators there is more music and more dance than I had imagined.

It’s not a traditional musical in its structure. But by being open

to the process of finding out, `what is it?,’ that’s what we discovered."

Like so many of the book’s subjects, Taylor also grew

up in a poor. She was raised in Dallas, Texas, by her mother, an elementary

school teacher. Her father is also a teacher. She was still a student

at Southern Methodist University in Dallas when she made her professional

acting debut in the CBS television film, "Crisis at Central High."

After graduation in 1981 she moved to New York where she continued

acting in repertory and Off-Broadway before winning the role of Juliet,

under the direction of Estelle Parsons, in the New York Shakespeare

Festival’s "Shakespeare on Broadway," a career milestone.

Film and television also became her canvas. One of her best-known

roles, in the early ’90s, was a Lilly Harper on the highly-acclaimed

(but low-rated) NBC series "I’ll Fly Away," for which Taylor

won a Golden Globe Award, an NAACP Image Award, and an Emmy nomination.

Her major film credits include the award-winning "Lean on Me,"

Spike Lee’s "Clockers," as well as "Losing Isaiah,"

and "Courage Under Fire" with Denzel Washington.

Despite this successful career path, Taylor says "all of my life

I had been a writer." At SMU she majored in journalism and English.

One of her instructors recommended an acting class to strengthen her

writing.

"I became fascinated with the process of acting," she says.

"With writing you put pen to paper, it’s the flesh and the blood

as it were. In acting, you’re giving your voice and body to the spirits."

For some seven years, Taylor has worked as artistic associate at the

Goodman Theater in Chicago, which recently produced "Drowning

Crow," her adaptation of Chekhov’s "The Seagull," a play

that opens in New York next year. Her play with music, "A Night

in Tunisia," which premiered in 2001 at the Alabama Shakespeare

Festival, is currently onstage at George Street Playhouse, starring

Suzzanne Douglas, where it can be seen through Sunday, October 20.

She recently conceived and performed in "Urban Zulu Mambo"

at the Signature Theater in New York. Her play "Oo-Bla-Dee,"

commissioned and produced by the Goodman Theater in 1999, was also

developed at Sundance and subsequently produced at La Jolla Playhouse

and Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The play, about an all-female jazz

band after World War II, won Taylor the award for the best new play

of the year from the American Theater Critics Association in 2000.

While all her plays are anchored in African-American experience, Taylor

says their themes touch on the lives of people everywhere.

"Yes, these are absolutely African American women," she says

of "Crowns," "but I think their stories are universal.

As with every human being, their wants, needs and dreams are universal.

"It’s all about transcendence. Part of my church is using writing

as an act in which different spirits enter inside you and you give

yourself over to those spirits or those forces. Once you go inside,

no matter that people are of different ethnic origins, you find this

common soul that is everlasting."

— Nicole Plett

Crowns, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, 609-258-2787.

Opening night for Regina Taylor’s gospel-driven show. Performances

to November 3. $24 to $47. Friday, October 18, 8 p.m.

On Sunday, October 20, McCarter offers a free Dialogue on Drama program,

following the 2 p.m. matinee, with guest speakers playwright Regina

Taylor, and Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry.

Crowning Glories, SweeTree Gallery, 286 Alexander

Street, 609-934-8665. Opening receptions for "Crowning Glories,"

a display of 12 church hats from the collection of Trenton milliner

Mayolyn Saunders. Saturday’s reception features Princeton dancer Cheryl

Whitney-Marcuard modeling the hats. Show runs to November 3. Free.

Friday & Saturday, October 18 & 19, 5 to 8 p.m.

Crowns, the Exhibit, Ellarslie, Trenton City Museum,

Cadwalader Park, 609-989-3632. Exhibit of photographs and texts by

Michael Cunningham and Craig On view to November 5. Free.

Crowns: the Inspiration, Ellarslie, Trenton City Museum,

Cadwalader Park, 609-989-3632. Tea time reception and book signing

for "Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats." Meet

the women of Greensboro, North Carolina, who inspired the book. By

reservation. Saturday, October 19, 3 to 5 p.m.


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