"When I wear my hat I feel powerful, sexy, like a Diva, inspired, motivated, strong, fashionable, in style, humble, like I’m wearing a prized possession inherited from my mother, in control, like my grandmother left me her crowning glory, like I’m going to see the king."
Those were some of the words expressed by many of the nearly 1,800 individuals who attended a two-day presentation of the national stage play CROWNS at Texas Southern University’s Sawyer Auditorium on campus last Friday and Saturday, Feb. 21st and March 1st. The event drew a virtual list of who’s who in Houston.
Spotted on the first rows were Mrs. Doris Ratliff, who chaired the honorary committee; Mrs. Marlene Petry, who chaired the executive committee; Mrs. Stephanie Nellons Paige, an honorary committee Member; TSU’s First Lady Mrs. Docia Rudley, an honorary committee member; the Reverend and Mrs. Charles Brown, the First Family of Williams Temple Church of God in Christ; Mr. and Mrs. Janis Newman, Bishop James Dixon, Mrs. Bonnie Davis, First Lady at Jordan Grove B.C.; Ms. Michelle Harden, Host, KVRN Radio; Ms. Wendy Adair and Dr. James Ward, members of the executive committee. Kandi Eastman served as Mistress of Ceremony. Taking his seat in the middle of the auditorium was the First Family of Windsor Village United Methodist Church, the Reverend Kirbyjon Caldwell and Mrs. Suzette Caldwell and their children.
The show, which drew one of the largest crowds to date, in TSU’s newly renovated Sawyer Auditorium, is a gospel-fused celebration of song and imparted wisdom as women come together to save one of Chicago’s troubled youth. It begins when Yolanda ( played by Houston’s Crystal Rae) a high school girl from Englewood, devastated by the murder of her beloved brother, and who starts to hang out with the wrong crowd, is sent down South to live with her hymn-singing grandmother Mother Shaw (Andrea Baty of Houston).
An outstanding woman of the church, Mother Shaw introduces her granddaughter to the church-going community of Black women for whom hats are a statement of pride, dignity and defiance in the face of challenges.
As the play moves, Yolanda is gradually transformed along the ways and imparted wisdom of her grandmother’s church-going, hat-wearing friends; women whose hats and hat etiquette has attitude in a slew of personal stories from the civil rights movement, to the sit-in’s of the 60’s, to churches in small towns, to black college campuses, and to baptisms and funerals. Throughout the play there are old familiar songs like, Mary Don’t You Weep, Wade in the Water, His Eye Is On The Sparrow and countless others that led the audience to become a church congregation joining in the chorus as actors/actresses led the various verses.
TSU alums Kathy Taylor (Mabel, the Preacher’s Wife) and Andrea Baty (Mother Shaw) were among the standouts, drawing interest from the local population of their Houston-based churches, choirs, co-workers, friends and family members; Lydia Pace (Velma, the good-time girl who has gone straight); M. Minka Wiltz (Wanda, the southern bell); Tanya Galamison (Jeanette) and Keith Bolden (multiple roles as preacher, husband and father). Cleveratta A. Garon-Bertrand and Felicia Johnson made up the choir ensemble.
Keith Eason of Ft. Bend Church, Rev. Byron Stevenson, Pastor, was the musical director with musicians; Milton McCullough, keyboard; Shamaal Blaise, drums; Jason Perry, percussion and sound effects and Omar Perez, bass. The guest ensemble included Janice Peterson, Tomeka Robinson, Quinton Smith and Doug Jarmon. Amanda Williams, a TSU graduate student majoring in Management Information Systems, was the intern.
Harold Haynes, simply outdid himself with an awesome set that included a range of hats suspended from the ceiling and miraculously assembled atop the heads of the cast. The backdrop was hand built with risers and high walls adorned the stage.
Crowns was directed and choreographed by Ms. Jade Lambert-Smith of PG Entertainment in Atlanta, GA. The play introduced the church community to the acting side of Kathy Taylor, who ended the play with a rendering of "Oh How Precious," that brought the audience to its feet. She professed the "Hat Queen" rules which I’m certain no one in attendance will soon forget which goes, "Never, never let anybody touch you hat. A hat is to be admired from afar."
Another profound line from the play that resonated with attendees was, Our Crowns have been bought and paid for…all we have to do is wear them."
The Kathy Taylor we all know and love, did what she does best in gospel circles. She "cut loose" during Saturday’s matinee performance with an unexpected rendering of "Mary Don’t You Weep." It brought the house to its feet. Many were left saying, "she went to church" on that number.
You could not help but laugh out loud, whenever the southern bell (Minka Wiltz) was on the scene saying things that most people think, but would never utter out loud. The lines, "Hats are not for everybody. If you buy a cheap hat, you’re subject to see yourself again," brought thunderous laughter from the audience.
Crowns is based of the book of the same name by photographer Michael Cunningham and the oral history of Craig Marberry. It was brought to the campus of Texas Southern University by TSU’s HATS and TIES Committee. The acronym Hats and Ties stand for, Honoring Academically Talented Scholars…to Impact & Engage Students, a mentoring program that raises money for student scholarships, helps with a graduation completion scholarship and other support programs and services.
Eva Pickens, TSU’s Associate Vice President for University Advancement (Communications, Marketing, Media Relations and Community Outreach) leads the HATS & TIES initiative. She states, "from all indications, we made the right decision in showcasing this play at the university for Black History Month. The show was delightfully entertaining for the entire family. It made people smile, cry, laugh, stomp their feet and clap their hands. It made people think and thank about our history, and our proud past which should never be forgotten," Pickens stated on a serious note. "I want to thank Regina Taylor, the writer/author, for encouraging us to remember."
Proceeds from the play will help award scholarships to first-generation college students and students impacted by the cuts to federal grants (Pell Grants) and loans (Parent Plus Loans) and who are nearing the completion of their degrees.
Crowns has certainly brought us all closer together, were words expressed by attendees, but more so by individuals who served on the Honorary and Executive Committees and sponsors.
"We are pleased to see so many from the Houston Community come out this evening to support this event and student scholarships," remarked Mrs. Rudley, at the conclusion of opening night. "This event was simply wonderful," she stated.