By Deanna Burrell
With so many people trying to find and pursue their passion, it’s always wonderful to meet someone who’s succeeding on both fronts of their progressive path to extend inspiration to those still stomping the pavement and knocking down doors.
As a world-renowned award-winning playwright, actor, and Artistic Associate at the Goodman Theatre, Regina Taylor is a creative spirit with a rich and well-rounded resume of work. Excelling in film, television, theater, and writing, she is a force behind and in front of the camera. On television, she’s best known for her role as Lily Harper in the series “I’ll Fly Away” and most recently in the CBS hit drama “The Unit”.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of the debut of CROWNS, the gospel musical she adapted, wrote, and directs.
Seen from California to New York, Crowns is heralded as one of the most produced musicals in the United States. In celebration of its success, The Goodman Theatre asked Ms. Taylor to return to mount another Chicago run. I sat down with Ms. Taylor to discuss the production and her creative process.
What does it mean to you to be staging and celebrating the 10th anniversary of Crowns?
Regina Taylor: This has been such an awesome experience working with the full cast. Everyone is so amazing from Felicia Fields, E. Faye Butler, Pauletta Washington and Alexis Rogers. I know all of these women and it was just a matter of asking them to come on board. I invited each one to lunch and asked them to take this journey with me and they graciously accepted.
I understand that Yolanda is the story’s protagonist. Tell me about Yolanda and the actress playing her.
I love Marketta (Wilder). She is so ferocious and fearless in taking on the role of this young lady who is 17 years old from Englewood whose brother is shot on the street.
Her mother, wanting to try and reclaim her daughter’s life, sends her down south to Darlington to live with her grandmother. Her grandmother introduces her to these hat queens, which means you own at least one hundred hats. They tell her the story of their lives. At first she thinks “I don’t have anything in common with these people” and “How can they understand me?” But each hat has a story about a wedding, a funeral, or a baptism; these are markers in their life. Each hat tells the story of their trials and their struggles.
As the evening goes on, she begins to understand that she’s not alone. She’s not the only one who’s been through these passages in particularly the passage of her brother being killed. There is this theme of “How I got over?” My soul looks back and wonders, “How I got over?”
Crowns is about finding out how you move through these mountains…over, through and around your obstacles and challenges. Yolanda discovers this through these woman’s stories. With that, this young girl, who seemed broken, is now steeped in her history and thoroughly rooted in where she comes from so she can get back up and move back to Chicago. She sees the place where she comes from with new eyes.
How do you handle challenges and obstacles?
Everyday life gives you some test. Sometimes you pass and sometimes you fail. Even in the failing, you try to learn something from that because there will be a next time. You have another opportunity each day to learn from the day before and also to learn from those who came before you. And that’s something else that Crowns is about; what we pass down to the next generation to give them that foundation to move forward in their own unique and special way.
What’s the difference between a hat and crown?
The hat, from the Bible, is this idea of a woman covering her head. It’s also, in terms of African tradition, about adoring oneself for worship. The difference between a hat and a crown is all about disposition. It’s all about hattitude. It’s what you make of it.
What’s your favorite crown look like?
I like funky hats. The color doesn’t matter. I like asymmetrical and sculptural hats.
I read in an interview that your mother once took you on a tour of her closet and told you the story of each of her hats. Tell me the story of your first hat.
The first one I bought was a wide brimmed, black, asymmetrical hat with these iridescent feathers that moved when I moved. That was the hat that I wore to my mother’s funeral, so that started my collection. In addition to walking to my mother’s graveyard, it’s also the hat I wore to the opening of Crowns.
The play has been staged across the country. How will this Chicago production and tenth anniversary celebration be different?
This is a re-imagining of the piece and I haven’t visited it in a while. I just moved to Chicago about a year and a half ago and I consciously made the choice to deal with the play in terms of Chicago, which is why I set Yolanda in Englewood.
The play is set at the Goodman Theatre in that it will live on the stage at the Goodman, and also live outside of the stage. In the lobby, we’ll have milliners selling their hats.
I work with a spoken word group of young women aged 17 to 21 years old, here, called “Louder Than a Bomb”. I did a workshop with them. They read the piece and I asked them to connect with and put on the shoes of Yolanda. I wanted to hear from the “Yolanda’s” in this city.
The ladies created spoken word pieces from Yolanda’s perspective and some of those pieces I’m collaging into the production. Our Yolanda will be speaking some of those pieces. Their voices will live in Yolanda’s mouth on the stage.
Also, I’m reaching out to the community to have guest artists to be on stage singing and church choirs in the lobby of the theater. Outside of the Goodman, we’re looking to partner with DuSable Museum, MCA, ETA, Muntu Dance Company, and Columbia College. Already I’ve done dance workshops with Muntu at the Lincoln Center and Columbia College.
In addition to being a musical, is there a lot of dancing in Crowns?
Oh yes. We look at the African-American church and track the traditions and music that survived through the Middle Passage, slavery, and beyond. The music, rhythms, and tunes of Africa were married to the poetry of the bible and then grew arms and legs through field hollers, blues, jazz, and hip-hop. We’re tracking those traditions as well as the movement in Crowns. We have a ring shout in the play, which is a counter-clockwise movement dance from the Gullah Islands, which is absolutely tied to tribal African dance. We juxtapose and compare that movement to the Charleston, Lindy Hop, and Krumping. They all overlap on the stage and make those connections from the past to the present.
Is Crowns a play just for women?
Crowns is about community, family, and how we come together to circle a loved one who is lost. Everyone can relate to that. The spirit of the play is strong. It’s about incorporating communities with programming that’s inclusive of all Chicago. We’re drawing attention to the violence in our streets, the shattering of young people and families, tracking traditions, and ultimately raising awareness. The audience will connect to Crowns in various ways. They’ll connect to the music and movement because they’ll recognize the community ties we are creating.
CROWNS is adapted from a book by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry.
It is running at the Goodman Theatre June 30 – August 5, 2012.
Purchase Tickets: 312.443.3800 | GoodmanTheatre.org | For groups 10 or more: 312.443.3820
Don’t miss it.
*Deanna Burrell is the author of the explosive novel, Single Girl Summer.
She can be contacted at SingleGirlSummer@gmail.com