On Wednesday night at Stetson Branch Library on Dixwell Avenue, Ife Michelle was explaining the plot of Crowns, the upcoming play at Long Wharf Theatre, and how it continued to relate to mentoring in the community today.
“There’s a scene in the play when Yolanda comes into church dressed a certain way,” she said. Yolanda is from Chicago, escaping the violence in her neighborhood by spending time with her grandmother in South Carolina. The women in that church give her a hat.
“We are queens,” they say. “You wear this when you’re ready.”
Later in the play, Michelle said, when Yolanda returns to Chicago, she has a lesson of her own to impart. As Yolanda tells her peers, a crown in Chicago doesn’t have to be a luxurious hat — although it could be. But it could also be a headwrap. Or even a baseball cap.
From Chicago and Dallas…
Crowns — which runs at Long Wharf Theatre from April 18 to May 13 — is about a young woman reconnecting with her family and her sense of identity, and using it to get stronger and become more a part of her community. It is filled with music, from gospel to hip hop, and delivers an uplifting message. But it does so by reaching back into a past that is as painful as it is powerful.
Photographer Michael Cunningham and journalist Craig Marberry published their book Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats in 2000. Writer and director Regina Taylor got a look at the galleys to that book and felt a fast connection.
“I’m looking at these pictures and thinking, ‘I know each and every one of these women in their Sunday hats,’” she said in an interview with the Independent.
Many of the women in the book were hat queens, meaning they owned at least 100 hats. “At that point I owned about 3 hats,” Taylor said.
Becoming a hat queen was “a dying tradition in some areas.” So Taylor had to do some research.
“Adorning oneself for worship is something that survived the Middle Passage,” Taylor said. Slaves were not allowed to wear hats during the week, but could do so when they gathered for worship on Sunday. “You still adorned your head as part of that African ritual that survived.”
After slavery, she added, the hats became “expressions of self, of how you want to be seen, an expression of spirit.” A “very contained” pillbox hat might suggest a more conservative mindset; “hats with all the bells and whistles on it” were “very much an expression of what was inside.”
So the hats and their history were intimately connected to the music that runs along the backbone of American culture, all the way back to Africa. “The rhythms and sounds that are married to the words — the poetry of the Bible — is where you get your gospel and your spirituals from,” Taylor said. The ring shout “that is part of the ritual of the Gullah Islands off South Carolina — parts of that ritual are still imbued with the African spirit. The field holler is also part of the depth of the call and response of the African-American church, to blues and jazz to hip hop.”
“What are the ties?” Taylor wondered. “What continues on? What moves forward from this old rituals, these ancient sounds?”
Taylor talked to her mother in Dallas about what she was working on, and “she took me into her closet” where “there were rows and rows of hats.” Each hat had a story — of services and community, of weddings and funerals, “layers and layers of history on the brim of each hat.”
“How do we pass on our legacy to the next generation?” Taylor thought.
The question was enough to drive the plot of what became Crowns. “I put together the narrative thinking about how we pass on our legacy,” Taylor said, “how we weather the good times and the bad.”
When Yolanda first arrives in South Carolina, Taylor said, “she doesn’t feel like she has anything in common” with the older women she finds there. But in time, “she finds a community that is going through the same things she thought she was going through alone.”
It helps her find “that individual spirit that is indomitable,” Taylor said, “so she knows where she comes from” and can draw strength from it.
The original version of Crowns enjoyed a national theatrical run in the early 2000s when Taylor first let it reign on the stage. Last year, however, with musician and performance artist David Pleasant, composer and arranger Jaret Landon, musician Chesney Snow, composer Deidre Murray, and choreographer Diane McIntyre — who is “blazing trails in terms of African dance,” Taylor said — Taylor reworked the piece to put Yolanda more at the center of it and spread the musical influences in the play from gospel to hip hop. The McCarter Theater at Princeton, which first gave Taylor the commission to write the original Crowns almost two decades ago, put the new production on as well in March.
Students at a matinee performance “were so moved by the piece that they saw themselves,” Taylor said, with humility. “One girl had lost a brother, who had been killed” — as happens to Yolanda in Crowns — “and it gave her hope to continue on.”
Yolanda’s story and the themes in Crowns rang true for a panel convened by Long Wharf to talk about mentoring in the community. With artist and theater maven Ife Michelle moderating, Stetson Branch Manager Diane Brown, Manager of Youth and Education Services Shirley Ellis West from New Haven Family Alliance, and Student Affairs Assistant Miriam Sheffield from Common Ground High School talked to a multigenerational audience of about a dozen.
Mentoring is “having someone you trust share some knowledge about what to do,” Sheffield said. “Mentors stay for life.” Each of the women on the panel considered herself to be both a mentor to the youth they worked with, and a mentee themselves.
“As a mentor I’m constantly modeling behavior that I like to see in others,” West said. “We’re modeling behavior all the time, whether it be negative or positive.” She turned to the students who had gathered for the panel. “You’re mentors to your younger brothers and sisters because they pay attention to the things you do.”
West described how the mentors in her own life had shaped her from her childhood in the South. Women in her church “were modeling for me all the time … what it meant to be black, to be female, to a woman of integrity.”
She moved to New Haven when she was 12. Mentors here guided her through early motherhood, graduating high school, and going to college at Southern Connecticut State University. These days she returns the favor. “My mentoring might involve someone who’s 40 years old because I’m kind of up there,” she said, drawing laughter. (She revealed that she’s 62 years old.) And “I still have people who mentor me.”
Mae Gibson Brown — a congregant at St. Matthew’s Unison Free Will Baptist Church who is one of several New Haven singers featured in Crowns — agreed. She recalled that in her childhood in Raleigh, W.V., “it was not just my parents or my aunties that mentored me. Everybody in the community did.” If people saw her doing wrong, “they would chastise you. And if you ran home and told your ma, you got it again.” Her father was a coal miner. Her mother cleaned houses for a dollar a day for “the white people on the hill.” Every evening her mother would gather whatever kids were playing nearby in the street and sit them down at the dinner table to give them something to eat.
“They didn’t call it mentoring, but that’s what it was,” Gibson Brown said. “Mr. and Mrs. Gibson took care of the community.”
Mentoring one person — as everyone on the panel attested — could mean working with that person’s entire family. That wasn’t an additional burden. That was just how effective mentoring was done.
Brown talked about how getting to know the students who came to Stetson Library after school meant getting to know their families, especially when Brown had to impose a little discipline on the students’ behavior — at least at first. She often found parents working two or three jobs to make ends meet. But they’d come get their kids from the library when Brown needed them to, and Brown got to know what the parents needed, too.
The students felt that bond. One of those young women “told me she loved me, even though we tussle all the time,” Brown said. “Sometimes I have to put them out. But they understand and they come back.”
“I think I’m doing something different than what their mothers or grandmothers are doing,” she said. “I’m just the librarian.” Even when that means helping students with their homework — or helping them stay out of trouble.
“I like coming here,” one of the students in attendance said, “because even if we don’t have homework, we have other things to do. We’re like family here.”
“That’s the village,” Michelle said.
Again, following the themes in Crowns, conversation turned to church, and the ways it could help foster community — if it could do so without judgment.
“I’m a Christian. I go to church. I like to see young people there,” West said. But “it’s not my place to get them there. You have to meet them where they are and encourage them to be their authentic selves. I don’t need to show up as someone I’m not. I’m going to show up being exactly who I am, because that’s the way to build trust.”
Often newcomers to church might not be wearing quite the proper clothes, West said. But “maybe that’s the only dress they have. Maybe they just feel good in it.”
“I like shorter dresses,” West added. “Sometimes I walk into churches and the mothers want to cover me up.”
It was important for churches to make themselves as welcoming as they could, all agreed. Gibson Brown mentioned how she didn’t like the church being in a box. “Not only can we come out of the box,” she said, “we’re going to take the sides off.” She declared a recent Sunday to be Biker Sunday and got the Flaming Knights motorcycle club to attend.
“You can’t clean a fish while it’s swimming,” Gibson Brown said. “You have to catch it first.”
Right about then was when Brown revealed that Gibson Brown was her mentor, helping her learn to have patience at her job, not only with patrons, but with the bureaucracy she worked under. “Miss Mae had to hold me back,” Brown said. “I still call her Miss Mae.”
The chance for everyone to become a mentor — and the possibility that everyone needs one — led Sheffield to issue a compassionate challenge to the students in attendance near the end of the panel. “If you see someone sitting alone,” she said, “sit next to them. Have a cup of coffee. Be a friend. If you can’t mediate” whatever problem they may be having, “just listen. Just listen.”
That connected to something Taylor said during her interview earlier.
“You are not alone in this world,” Taylor said. “Whatever that journey, that pathway may be. And that’s what community is — it brings people together of various races and backgrounds, generational ties. You gather around that fire and you share your stories and you connect. You have this empathy and you know you’re not alone.”
Crowns runs at Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Dr., from April 18 to May 13. Click here for tickets and more information. Passes to see Long Wharf productions for free can be checked out from New Haven Free Public Library branches with a library card.