"Crowns" returns to the Wells, a gospel musical celebrating everyday queens
May 6, 2018
The women bloomed. Like Easter flowers, they seemed to beautify East Section Line, the dignified working-class block in Malvern, Ark., where Big Mama, my grandmother, lived for years. Come Sunday morning, she and other women emerged from their modest homes and gingerly descended steps in pastel- and jewel-toned dresses and skirt suits. Big Mama and several of her neighbors worked for decades as domestics, catching rides to work during the week in drab uniforms. Sunday morning was the only time they became the divas they were, perfumed and glamorized to praise the Lord in stuffy churches.
They took their time walking to waiting sedans in heels they wore only on Sundays. And their outfits were never without a flamboyant hat bedecked with glittery flowers, multicolored sequins or fluffy plumes that a random breeze ruffled.
These hats were their crowns.
Regina Taylor’s gospel musical, appropriately titled “Crowns,” returns to the Wells Theatre in Norfolk, where performances sold out when it played there in 2006. The production explores, among other things, the culture of black church women and their hats, the metaphorical crowning of women who are like safe harbors in the community. The story centers on Yolanda, a troubled 17-year-old Northerner, who travels south and connects to an old culture of sisterhood. The hats worn by the characters serve as allegories about the joys and pains of life.
“The play allows us to get a glimpse into the lives of women who persevere and survive,” says Donna Speller Turner, who donated more than 50 hats from her private collection to the Virginia Stage Company. “On Sunday, no matter what they had just had as a challenge during the week, they are as fabulous as they can be. That resonates with me around the issue of overcoming challenges.”
Turner, who retired from the federal government before opening a management consulting firm in Virginia Beach, initially thought the donated hats would be used for fundraising efforts. Instead, they were ideal for VSC’s current production of “Crowns.”
“The hats represented a time of being exceedingly stylish. I grew up with that,” says Speller Turner. “When I first saw all the hats I had given away, it was my turn to burst into tears again because it brought back so many memories when I saw my aunts wear those hats and being fabulous.”
Director Raelle Myrick-Hodges was drawn to the musical, the first she’s directed, because of its exploration of an overlooked culture to which she immediately connected.
“What’s extraordinary about ‘Crowns’ for me is that it’s a celebration of basic American history that hasn’t been celebrated on a large scale that can be,” Myrick-Hodges says. “Also, it’s the legacy. It is about black women storytellers, the oral tradition that is a part of our community. Thirdly, whether one believes in Christianity, Islam, agnostic or atheist, there is something about this space of believing in something larger than oneself. Believing that it is important to have faith to get through pain is a truth versus a speculation. It’s a piece for everyone.”
“Crowns” dramatizes the ritual of women otherwise invisible outside their communities becoming metaphorical queens on Sunday, an affirmation of their self-esteem.
“It was not only about building their own self-esteem, but also allowing the young ones coming up behind them to learn by observing what it means to be a lady, what it means to be regal, what it means to be queenly,” Speller Turner says. “If all you see in them is working-class maids and housekeepers who serve others, you can get the mistaken impression that’s all there is to them. There was always so much more.”
But it’s not necessarily a ritual women born after my grandmother’s generation – baby boomers and younger – feel a need to keep alive.
“It’s something that’s being lost. In my church, which has about 600 regular members, there are probably 15 to 25 women who regularly wear hats to church. Of those women, I’m probably the youngest by far who regularly wears a hat, and I’m over 65,” Speller Turner says. “We’ve gone to a much more casual approach to everything. We have a mindset that says, ‘If I can’t wear my $200 sneakers, which is my idea of being dressed up, then it’s not something I want to go to.’ Part of me is OK with that, because times change. I’m just glad young people are in church.”
Director Myrick-Hodges says wearing crowns has taken on a different meaning in the years since my grandmother and her friends headed to church in resplendent hats. The new “crowns” have become sculpted hairdos and globular Afros, both throwbacks from different eras in black glamour.
“Our hair literally grows up to the sky naturally,” Myrick-Hodges says. “Hats are just a metaphor for what is a part of us.”
As “Crowns” explores, the lives of such women who wore outrageous hats on Sunday were often much richer than others may have realized. They made their way to places of worship, bedazzled and crowned, queens for a day.