At McCarter Theater in Princeton playwright, director, and actress Regina Taylor is calling her celebrated stage work “Crowns” — on stage through April 1 — “a crazy-quilt of music and movement and storytelling that takes us through the rituals of a Sunday in the South with characters breaking out of the framework to deliver ‘arias,’ direct addresses to the audience that may start in the Sunday church service but jump off into memories of life experiences in different times and different places.”
The story involves a tough Brooklyn girl sent to live with her South Carolina grandmother and discovering an empowering circle of church women who display their noble spirits through the ritual of dressing for Sunday service. That includes the wearing of elaborate hats or “crowns.”
The stage work was originally the 2000 book “Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats” by North Carolina photographer Michael Cunningham and journalist Craig Marberry.
It started when Marberry got curious as to why so many African-American women wore flamboyant hats to church — with many women owning 50 or more.
When he heard his sometimes colleague Cunningham was already photographing the women, Marberry introduced the idea of a book that not only showed the women and their hats but included their personal stories.
Marberry says the two soon found that the practice was connected to an “African tradition that says that when one presents oneself before God you should be at your best — that you should present excellence before the Almighty. And that tradition of adorning the head for worship is a very African tradition.”
“Who knew that a Bible commandment could come in so many colors?” notes Cunningham. “When the Apostle Paul declared that women must cover their heads during worship, African-American women took his decree, attached feathers and bows to it, and turned it into something beautiful.
“In the early 20th century Sunday church services provided African American women who worked as domestic servants or in other subservient roles the only real chance to break away from their drab, dreary workday uniforms. They favored bright colors and textured fabric — the bolder the better.”
Yet even before “Crowns” was published by Doubleday, Marberry believed the women’s stories were stage worthy and sent a mock-up of the book to Emily Mann, the Tony Award-winning artistic director of McCarter Theater who had developed several African American-themed productions. That includes Ntozake Shange’s “Betsy Brown” and the Delaney Sisters’ “Having Our Say.”
Mann agreed and commissioned Taylor to adapt and direct the 2002 production that premiered in Princeton in October, 2002, and off-Broadway in November. Since then it has been on regional stages around the nation.
Taylor says her adaptation was influenced by 20th-century artist Romare Bearden. “His collages are of the past, present and future, not only of African Americans but of the world. I took the book the play is based on and made of collages of words and memories, other people’s memories, a collaging of the music, a collaging of dance. I wanted to create a layered experience.”
Crowns, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Through Sunday, April 1. $25 to $97.50. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.
#b#Hats Off for the Women in Hats#/b#
McCarter Theater’s current production “Crowns” (through April 1) was born by a phenomenon: American women of African ancestry wearing elaborate hats for Sunday church services as a means to affirm themselves in a racist and sexist culture.
“Crowns” the play was born from a book of the same name that captured the images and stories of a grand-hatted community of women in North Carolina.
As a way to honor the spirit of the play, McCarter Theater and the Arts Council of Princeton engaged Trenton photographers Bentrice Jusu and S. Bola Okoya to capture the images and stories of 15 women of African ancestry in the Princeton-Trenton area. The result is “Local Women in their Crowns: A Portraits and Stories Community Project” on view at the Arts Council of Princeton, Princeton Public Library, and the McCarter Theater lobby.
In addition to the multi-venue exhibition, photographers Jusu and Okoya will present a talk about the project and their work on Thursday, March 29, at the Arts Council of Princeton. The free event starts at 6:30 p.m. with a reception followed by the 7 p.m. program.
The exhibition and talk are also part of the current Migrations Project, a Princeton community collaboration project involving 30 area nonprofits and Princeton University departments and focusing on the historical movements of peoples.
Meet some of the women:
#b#DuEwa M. Edwards-Dickson#/b#, Trenton-based State Human Services Housing Policy and Planning Specialist: “My mother always wanted her children to understand our true connection to American society, and not just from the way we are taught normally. There is more to African-American/Black history in America than is typically taught. Being brought up in that way made me a lover of people, because I valued myself. So because I didn’t have any questions about my culture, my heritage, and my value as a woman, I am a lover of people.”
#b#Dr. Cecelia B. Hodges#/b#, Princeton-based educator and performer: “I grew up in a household where my parents made it clear that you must use whatever gifts you have been given in a commitment to others in some way. I think that’s why I went into teaching. I liked it, but I was also discovering many more things about being Black in American society that made me know that this commitment had to be extra strong. Not only had I to teach, but I had to teach and educate and entertain about our condition in the world.”
#b#Lois Craig#/b#, Former secretary and teacher’s aide in Princeton: “I don’t have many hats, maybe four or five. I had one big one that I purchased years ago. I never give up trying, but like I say, every time I go to the mirror and put that hat on, that mirror says, “No. You’re too short.” Really! With this hat? I tell you the truth, I love this hat. I don’t know who smiles first: me or the mirror. The mirror says, “Okay.” And I say thank you! Really, I love this.”