Regina Taylor's Crowns, now in its 10th year, is the definitive story of the cultural tradition of wearing "crowns" and their significance and symbolism for African-Americans in both the church culture and the community at-large; recently, I sat down with two of the stars, E. Faye Butler and Tony-nominated actress Felicia Fields, to talk about the play, their characters, and what it means to have "hattitude."
The story is of a young girl, Yolanda, who is sent to live "down South" after losing a loved one to gun violence, but you don't really hear much about that part of African-American culture anymore. Tell us your thoughts about this being central to the plot.
Butler: Yolanda is from Englewood, which is where we're having so much of this violence and where young children are being killed everyday. It would help a lot of children right now if there was a grandma--a "Big Mama" down South that you could send them to. I think it's a great thing and it's the thing that made us strong because we had that fear in us. There was reverence about it and I think it's a great if we remind ourselves as a culture that that's the way it used to be.
Fields: The child is sent down South to preserve her because things down there are calmer and move slower--there's just a certain structure there.
The play also shines a light on the generational relationships and traditions in the black community that have seemingly vanished in our current society--how do you feel about that element of this production and/or its impact?
Butler: I think the great thing about this piece is that Yolanda meets people of a certain mix--she has somebody her age that she can talk to and she also has these different [generations of] women to draw from and who she can look up to.
Crowns has been going strong now for 10 years--talk about the appeal of the show and why you think it is a favorite among theatergoers.
Butler: We identify with it. We know what this is. We've all grown up in these homes. We know these women and we know those hats. People come to this show and they see themselves. It's a beautiful thing when you sit in an audience in a theater and hear songs you know and see the different kinds of churches--from Methodist to C.O.G.I.C. to Pentecostal--we hit them all. It's a great way for others to learn about black women and see these hats in Crowns and say, "Oh, that's what that is."
The play is indeed well known for displaying and exploring the church component of African-American culture in a very unique way that isn't often seen in other shows...
Butler: The rituals we do in the show absolutely connect to our African culture. I love that Regina put those rituals in the show because I think so many of us forget that; as African-Americans, when we get older, we become such "city folks" that we forget about our culture--that when we do things like beatboxing or "crumping"--how all that goes back to African culture. In this show, you will find that there isn't much we don't do that doesn't go back to the Motherland.
Is it safe to say that in this play, the 'crowns' are characters on their own?
Butler: The crowns are very much a character. These hats have feathers and wide brims and rhinestones and everything--they're just elaborate.
And they also give the characters who wear them, "hattitude"--a term coined especially for this play that describes the statements that hats make--tell us what that means to you.
Fields: I think a lot of times, people don't know how to wear hats, but the minute you put a hat on your head, your whole physique changes--your walk changes--your whole attitude changes.
Butler: A fierce hat really changes your whole day!
Regina Taylor recently mentioned that as a result of the popularity of Crowns--and receiving so many of them as gifts--that she has sort of become a "hat-ista"--does this apply to either of you, as well?
Fields: I wear hats quite a bit; I used to wear them for "swagger" but now I wear them because I don't want to do anything to my hair! [Laughs]. But a hat makes people look at you differently--it really does.
Your characters, Mabel and Mother Shaw, are two of the most prominent in the play--tell us a little about them.
Butler: Mabel is the minister's wife and one of Mother Shaw's friends. She knows Yolanda was sent South and she's going to do all she can to help raise this child the way she should be raised. She tells the church and all the children of the church that everyone is going to look out for her because she is a new member of the church family.
Fields: Mother Shaw is laid back--she has wisdom and is stern but soft--and in this particular instance of the show, she thinks about how she raised her daughter and reflects on that and the mistakes she made with raising her.
What's it like working with Regina Taylor and the cast?
Butler: It's been absolutely a ball. We've got a great cast--Alexis Rogers is amazing to work with and we've also got Pauletta Washington--it was wonderful meeting her and working with her. We've got Sherri Addison from [BET's]"Sunday's Best," too. There is just an amazing wealth of talent standing on one stage and it's just an amazing group to work with. And Regina's amazing to work with because for the first two and a half weeks, she allowed us to kind of just work our process out. She's wonderful because she's a collaborator. It's been a great experience and it's fun--and I think the fun and the love will show on stage.
The show was already revised/updated to make Yolanda from Chicago instead of New York--are there any other revisions?
Butler: There's new music and arrangement in this show which is very different; I teased Regina and said, "You're going to have to rename this some kind of way because this isn't really the Crowns that people know." We [now] have music by Donald Lawrence, Sweet Honey in the Rock and even a little Lauryn Hill in there--it's going to be different and entertaining for everyone.
In the play, the audience will no doubt see the promotion of support and encouragement--is there anything else you'd like to see the audience take away?
Fields: We've gotten to a point where babies are having babies and they haven't lived their lives out. There is a whole generation of children who have such a sense of entitlement who don't want to play by the rules and who have no reverence for adults--we need to get back to that.
Butler: It's about the humanity of it all; this is a very human piece and it speaks to everyone on some level. And as people, you should remember where you come from--remember who you are. That's something we all need to do.
Crowns opens Saturday, June 30 and runs through August 5 at The Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn; show days and times vary. Tickets are $29-$88 (subject to change); for more information, contact the box office 312-443-3800.