Goodman Theatre celebrates 10th anniversary of Regina Taylor's 'Crowns'

 By Karen Hawkins

When playwright/director Regina Taylor was approached about bringing the book “Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats” to the stage more than a decade ago, her research took her across the ocean to Africa, where she traced the roots of not just women’s elaborate head coverings, but the sights, sounds and dance of the African-American church.

And a gospel musical was born.

Taylor celebrates the 10th anniversary production of that musical this summer at the Goodman Theatre, where she is an artistic associate. She’s directing the show, which runs from June 30 to Aug. 5.

The Dallas native recently moved to Chicago and decided to incorporate the fabric of her new home into this year’s production, moving the main character from Brooklyn to Englewood, Chicago’s most violent neighborhood, and by working with local artists, students and activists.

“Crowns” tells the story of 17-year-old Yolanda, who’s sent down South to stay with her grandmother after her brother is shot to death in the street.

“She is introduced to her grandmother’s circle of ‘hat queens,’” Taylor said. “Think of the ‘Joy Luck Club.’”

Yolanda gets to know the women through their “crowns.”

“Each hat has a story about … each woman’s life,” Taylor said. “As she learns these stories, she finds out that she’s not alone in the journeys that she’s had, the struggles she’s had, others have shared them.

“They give her a sense (that) she can be this unique individual among other unique individuals whose purpose is to support her, to root her as she moves forward in her own way. They send her back to Chicago whole, knowing where she comes from, knowing that she has a foundation. She can see where she’s from in a different way.”

The book “Crowns,”
published by Doubleday in 2000 and created by journalist Craig Marberry and photographer Michael Cunningham, paints rich portraits of both black women and their glamorous hats. Taylor said when she read the book, she felt like she already knew the women featured even though she’d never met them.

“I recognized them from the women who raised me in Dallas,” she said, and bringing them to the stage was a rewarding experience.

“I found it essential, I found it rejuvenating, I found it liberating to have these amazing women featured, standing strong and proud on the stage, to honor these women from this book in this way,” she said.

The black tradition of beautiful hats has its roots in not only the Bible, in which the apostle Paul dictates that women should cover their heads during worship, but in African rituals as well. “Crowns” brings that rich history to the stage through storytelling, song and dance.

Taylor is also an award-winning
actress who has worked on the stage, in film and on television. TV audiences may recognize her as Lilly Harper in the series “I’ll Fly Away” and more recently as Molly Blane on CBS’ “The Unit.” Her history with the Goodman Theatre includes the premieres of her plays “Magnolia” in March 2009 and her trilogy, “The Trinity River Plays” in January 2011.

So far she has nothing but good things to say about her adopted hometown.

“I love Chicago, I love the city, I love the people, I think it’s very vibrant,” she said. “Culturally it’s very diverse and daring and wonderful. … It’s a very alive city with people being very down-to-earth, civic-minded, proud of their city. You find a lot of entrepreneurs here, the entrepreneurial spirit is very alive here, those who are very active in different causes. You find people who are very passionate about communities finding a better way of life. All of that attracted me.”

What Makes You Rebellious?
“I dare to be myself, my authentic self with no apology.”

What’s the Most Rebellious thing you’ve ever done?

“To dare to follow my own line in terms of the work that I do. To dare to write and act and direct and dream my own dreams. To do all of those things, to live a creative life, and I think to dare to do that every day, is a rebellious act.”