Actress and playwright Regina Taylor wrote Crowns after getting lost in the photography book Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry.
“I’m looking at this book and going, ‘Oh my god, I recognize these women, even though I’ve never met them before!’” Taylor told an interviewer. “These women in their Sunday hats, that whole culture, the history of it, the ritual of it.”
Crowns opens Thursday in the Jaeb Theatre, inside Tampa’s Straz Center complex. Taylor’s play explores the complex culture of churchgoing African American women in the southern United States through music – spirituals and gospel – and a loose narrative about a troubled 17-year-old New York girl, Yolanda, who’s sent south to visit her grandmother in South Carolina.
Mother Shaw is a “hat queen”; in her circle, that means she owns more than 100 hats. Each one has its own narrative attached.
Raved the New York Times: “What comes across in Crowns is the sense of authenticity; like Yolanda, you feel that you’ve been transported to someplace real and welcomed there. In the theater, that’s heady stuff.”
There’s a word in the script that sums it up nicely: Hattitude.
“It’s told in an almost poetic way,” says Bob Devin Jones, who’s directing this Tampa Bay production. “So it doesn’t have your normal sort of ‘protagonist and antagonist.’”
The metaphor, Jones explains, is that the ladies’ hats – signifying life lessons, signposts and roads well taken – are their crowns. Mother Shaw and the others hope to straighten Yolanda out, “and their activity is to get her a crown – it has to be earned, but it’s spiritually given. And then it has to be spiritually accepted. So you have to be ready for it.”
The cast includes NaTasha McKenzie as Mother Shaw, Lena Morisseau as Mabel, Vette Berrian as Velma, Andresia Moseley as Wanda, Candace Marie Henry as Jeanette and Treshel Johnson as Yolanda. Edward Leonard is also in the cast (as “Man”).
“I’m very blessed and highly favored with this ensemble,” Jones says. “You need good actors and good singers. And I got both.
“I don’t particularly like auditions. I’d rather just meet people and say ‘Let’s work together.’ You know what you know when you know you know it.”
Johnson, he adds, ‘Sings like an angel. Like Minnie Riperton.” And McKenzie “is Mahalia.”
This is Jones’ first time working with Moseley, one of Tampa’s most prolific professional actresses, a frequent collaborator with Jobsite Theater.
At their first meeting, he says, “It was like meeting Viola Davis. I’ve never told an actor at an audition that I wanted to work with her. And so I am.
“In fact, I’m going to write a piece for her – on Marion Anderson, Nine Simone and Leontyne Price. I’m writing three choreo-poems about these three women.”
Jones, who owns and operates thestudio@620 in St. Petersburg, is enjoying this exploration in the world of Crowns.
“It’s been a lovely journey,” he enthuses. And I get to travel to Tampa five, six times a week. So I’ve been to Tampa more times in the last month than I have in the last five years.”
Additional information and tickets here.