"Crowns"opens at Syracuse Stage

Nancy Keefe Rhodes 05/12/09More articles
(Cora Thomas hosts "Sunday Morning Gospel" on WAER 88.3 FM. She and her family host a dessert reception at Syracuse Stage before this Sunday's 7:00 PM performance as a special outreach to the African American community and a benefit for the Stage. This photo hung over the fireplace on April 29th when SU Chancellor Nancy Cantor hosted a reception to celebrate the "Crowns" production and photographer Brantley Carroll's latest work, a series of portraits of Syracuse's own queens. Photo © Brantley Carroll, used with permission.)

A strange thing happened at Sunday night’s dress rehearsal of "Crowns," which opens at Syracuse Stage this week. Having already performed this play, which is produced in association with Indiana Repertory Theatre and Connecticut Repertory Theatre, the cast and crew were mainly adjusting everything to a new space. But more than a run-through was going on here – enough to make a reporter forget to take notes.

Director Patdro Harris is also a choreographer and it shows, from the opening angry rap of Brooklyn tomboy Yolanda (Shannon Antalan), followed by a swirling church procession led by her grandmother, Mother Shaw (Chandra Currelley), that comes to rest almost magically – this is how you accomplish a transition on stage normally reserved for the movies – as the five ladies turn together and are suddenly in their slips, getting ready for church that morning, to the show-stopping rendition of “His Eye is on the Sparrow” by the purple-clad Velma (Roz White). Over a day’s time, embraced by these church women and their stories, Yolanda perceptibly grows in voice and stature, and takes her place as a young lady.

Deirdre Guioni first put it this way. “‘Hattitude’ is something you have to possess in order to wear a hat well. There’s a little more strut in your carriage when you wear a nice hat.”

North Carolina photographer Michael Cunningham says this goes beyond fashion to “the African tradition that says when one presents oneself before God, you should be at your best.”

"Crowns" began with pictures (including Guioni’s) in the book "Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats" (2000). Two years earlier, Cunningham began his photos of African American Southern women in their Sunday-best church-going hats. His friend, journalist Craig Marberry, suggested combining Cunningham’s strikingly lovely black-and-white images with the women’s own stories. Their book is now in its seventh printing. But early on, Marberry went to Emily Mann with the idea of a stage play. Mann is artistic director of Princeton, New Jersey’s McCarter Theatre Center and she commissioned playwright/director/actor Regina Taylor to write the play. Two years later, the McCarter premiered "Crowns" with Taylor directing.

Audiences have embraced "Crowns." In 2006 it was the most-often produced stage musical in the U.S. Washington, DC’s Arena Stage has just done "Crowns" for the fourth time. It’s on stage right now in Los Angeles.

It’s not hard to see why. Its music – backed by pianist William Hubbard and percussionist Otis Gould – blends spirituals with blues, jazz and Hip-Hop; there’s something to raise the hair on anyone’s neck. Its dialogue ranges from the stirring Yoruba chant “Ese O Baba, ese” to James Baldwin to intimate sister stories to rap lament. Its choreography echoes the old, counter-clockwise “ring shout” of slave days, church processionals and Hip-Hop. Its story of six women (plus one “all-purpose” man) – older Darlington, SC church ladies enfolding a rough-edged city girl grieving her murdered brother – embodies the ways communities hand down faith, healing and memory. Costume designer Reggie Ray continues the practice of dressing "Crowns" characters in colors emblematic of the seven “Orishas,” personified aspects of the Yoruba God. Felix Cochren’s sculptural, pieced-wooden set, which arrived last week in sections from Indiana and puts you right inside this church’s rafters, is itself worth going to see – and one example of why the National Black Theater honors Cochren’s career this summer.

Meanwhile, Syracuse Stage had some local help to make this a season finale worthy of the name.

May 17 is Ms. Mary’s Philanthropy Day

When Cora Thomas read last year that Syracuse Stage would present "Crowns," she says she called them up with an idea. Thomas hosts the early Sunday morning gospel show on WAER FM and is somewhere behind most CNY live gospel concerts. After her mother passed in June 2005, Mother’s Day was hard to celebrate. So she, her father and siblings – Frank, Betty, Edna, Barbara, Agnes and Adelia – decided to follow her mother’s example and give back to the community. They held annual breakfast celebrations, with donations of $500 the last two years to Second Olivet Missionary Baptist Church, where Thomas’ parents joined in 1953.

But Thomas’ daughter gave her grandmother a copy of "Crowns" on her last Mother’s Day. Thomas says her mother – “who owned well over 50 hats herself” – loved that book. Thomas decided that this year Ms. Mary’s Philanthropy Day should benefit Syracuse Stage and serve as a special outreach to Syracuse’s Black community. From the stories about their mother that Thomas and her elder sister Edna Grigsby tell – from her simple advice in any situation to “do the right thing,” to the acres of vegetables that she planted to share, to her sewing and open dinner table and over-arching faith and her footwork in the world - those who knew Ms. Mary will find plenty that’s familiar in "Crowns."

Queens of Syracuse

"Crowns" is set down South, but photographer Brantley Carroll’s latest project demonstrates something less bounded by geography. Monday afternoon, he’d just finished installing his photo series, "Syracuse Crowns: Portraits of African American Women from Central New York in their Church Hats," in the Stage’s lobby and walked across the street to Community Folk Art Center, where he’s a judge of this year’s Teen Art exhibit, also opening this weekend. By cell phone, Carroll said that CFAC’s Cjala Surratt asked him to do this project and then the Stage’s community engagement director Carol Charles had coordinated scheduling the shoots over about four weeks.

“We had some deadlines!” he laughed. “But I loved working with these women.”

Carroll thought he’d photographed 27 women altogether, ten single portraits plus two group portraits of local Delta sorority members of nine women and then another eight.

“There was some great sisterhood,” said Carroll. “I made thumbnails as I went along to show the next women who came in. They just glowed when they saw them. That was really wonderful. They all knew each other and knew what church everyone went to.”

Carroll hopes the new book version of this project, entitled "Sunday Best," arrives in time for Friday’s opening night. Already striking in Carroll’s usual black-and-white format, some images in the book add soft pastel hues as well.

These photos have been displayed twice now with a similar glow ensuing. Last Saturday they graced the local Delta chapter’s annual luncheon at the Doubletree in Carrier Circle. Before that, SU Chancellor Nancy Cantor hosted a reception at her residence on April 29th to celebrate this convergence of stage, philanthropy and photo. Carroll was sick that day; he went home after hanging the photos. But many of the women in his photos were there, mingling with community members, Stage board and staff, and congenial laughter like that which rippled through the crowded rooms when Bethany Baptist’s Rev. Phil Turner began with, “I’m going to ask that the ushers come forward…” was common.

Referring to the Stage’s artistic producing director Tim Bond, who’s in his second year here and did Crowns five years ago at the Guthrie, Cantor herself said, “We’re all honest with each other, right? We need to be a community that supports this guy.”

Sunday night I turned to the Stage’s Patrick Finlon, who sat beside me in the sea of weirdly empty seats. “All that lacked was an audience,” I said. That’s where you come in. See this with each other.

A shorter version of this article appears in the May 14, 2009 print edition of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly.
“Crowns” runs May 15 – June 7 at Syracuse Stage, 820 E. Genesee St. Single tickets at 443.3275 or Groups of 10 or more, call 443.9844. Discounts for seniors, students, groups, subscribers, and 40 Below members, plus day-of-performance Rush Tickets. Nancy covers the arts. Reach her at

Click here to preview new Brantley Carroll book

Ms. Mary’s Philanthropy Day Benefit

Sunday, May 17, 5-6:30 PM at Syracuse Stage.
Enjoy a dessert reception with entertainment before the 7 PM performance of Crowns, whose proceeds benefit Syracuse Stage. Reservations are $20 each with Carol Charles at 443.8603 through May 15th.

CATEGORY: Performing Arts
TAGS: Syracuse Stage, Syracuse University, Michael Cunningham, Craig Marberry, Patdro Harris, Felix Cochren, Tim Bond, Brantley Carroll, Crowns
EDITION: The Eagle

Rating: 3.3/5 (10 votes cast)

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