Not everyone would imagine that a photograph-driven book about black women who tell stories of their resplendent “church” hats could be turned into a vibrant piece of theater. But Emily Mann, artistic director of the Tony Award-winning McCarter Theater in Princeton, N.J., and Regina Taylor, a celebrated actress and award-winning playwright, are creative artists with prodigious imaginations.
Mann commissioned Taylor, whose trilogy The Trinity River Plays has just opened at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, to create a play based on Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats even before the book by photographer Michael Cunningham and writer Craig Marberry was published in 2000. By 2002, the piece premiered to acclaim at the McCarter, and in 2006, it was the most-produced musical in the country’s regional theaters.
Now, belatedly, Crowns is getting its moment at Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, where Tony Award winner Melba Moore is lending her star power to a production by M Ensemble, the black theater group that also happens to be South Florida’s longest-running professional theater company.
A Black History Month coproduction with the center, C rowns tells the story of Yolonda, a streetwise Brooklyn girl sent to South Carolina to live with her grandmother after her brother’s murder. There, she reconnects with her familial and spiritual heritage, coming to appreciate the wisdom of the women whose elaborate hats adorn them each Sunday at church.
Taylor recalls that when Mann gave her an advance copy of Cunningham and Marberry’s elegant black-and-white photo book, she thought, “Oh my goodness. I know all these women. I’ve never met them, but I know them.”
Moore, director John Pryor and the other cast members — Lela Elam, Christina Alexander, Yaya Browne, Chiquila Brown, Paulette Dozier and Don Seward — felt that familiarity too.
The petite Moore, vibrantly youthful at 65, says, “Especially among older women, wearing a hat to church is a sign of respect.”
Then she references a quote from James Baldwin, an observation used in the book and as her character’s opening lines“Our crowns have already been bought and paid for. All we have to do is wear them.”
Crowns is a combination of real-life stories and Taylor’s invention. The playwright, best known as an actress from TV’s I’ll Fly Away and The Unit, merged various women’s stories into the characters of Mother Shaw and her daughters. She imbued each with the spirit of an orisha, or Yoruban goddess, to tie the modern-day churchgoers to their Nigerian ancestors and the practice of adorning the head for worship. And she knew that the hats — and the “hattitude” of those wearing them — should be character revealing.
“Each hat has a story, with the life of the woman cupped under its brim,” Taylor says. “It signifies who the woman is. A pillbox [hat] is not the same as a hat with all the bells and whistles.”
Music-driven, Crowns features such classic hymns and spirituals as His Eye Is on the Sparrow, Wade in the Water and Touch the Hem of His Garment. But Mother Shaw, Yolonda’s grandmother, doesn’t have any solos — not a good thing when you have a Tony-winning star with a still-killer voice playing the part. So together, director Pryor and Moore picked out a couple of spots where Moore could be showcased singing I Believe and Lean on Me.
“It was the freakiest thing,” Pryor says. “We wondered where to put the songs. I flipped to the pages in my script where I thought they could go, and they were the exact places she had picked.”
For Pat Williams and Shirley Richardson, M Ensemble’s longtime leaders, preparing Crowns for its five-performance run in the Arsht’s Carnival Studio Theater has been a blessing and a challenge. The company is between homes, no longer producing its main-stage fare at its old home in North Miami (though M Ensemble still has an active children’s-theater program there) but not yet able to move into Miami Light Project’s new space, where it will be a resident arts group. So the Arsht opportunity happened at just the right time, but the two knew they’d need a big name for that higher-profile production.
“I said, ‘Melba Moore!’ And Pat listens to me sometimes,” Richardson says, grinning. So through a mutual acquaintance, they reached out to Moore, who said yes. Richardson and Williams are hoping that, post-Arsht, they can take Crowns to the National Black Theatre Festival in August, perhaps even on tour.
For Moore, Crowns comes at a time of growing happiness in a life marked by professional triumphs and personal trials. As she shared in her solo show Minor to Major at the now-defunct Hollywood Boulevard Theatre in 1995, her past included emotional and sexual abuse, drug and alcohol abuse, bankruptcy, welfare and a particularly ugly divorce. But she has continued working hard, raised her daughter Charli, appeared on Broadway as Fantine in Les Misérables, continued acting and recording. And surprisingly, even to her, she is now politely communicating with her changed ex-husband, Charli’s father.
“We sat next to each other at a funeral, and he asked me to forgive him,” Moore says. “I’m a born-again Christian. What could I say — no?”