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Crowns honors hat queens in a musical tribute to black women

The musical opens June 15 at Le Petit Theatre

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"The more I study Africa, the more I see that African-Americans do very African things without even knowing it," muses Yolanda, a character in the gospel-inspired musical Crowns. "Adorning the head is one of those things."

  The title refers to the elaborate, fanciful hats worn by churchgoing African-American women, but the show is about more than fashion.

  When her brother is murdered in Brooklyn, New York, Yolanda (Jasmine Johns) is sent to stay with her grandmother (Barbara Shorts) in South Carolina. There, Yolanda encounters a whole generation of strong women who paved the way before her.

  Director Tommye Myrick calls Crowns, running June 15-July 1 at Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre, an "evolutionary journey." Yolanda traces her heritage from "the Great Migration to the North, back down to Southern roots and dirt roads and then way back to our African culture," Myrick tells Gambit. "The process that this young girl goes through makes her into the woman that she later becomes."

  Written by Regina Taylor, Crowns first premiered off-Broadway in 2002 and has remained a popular fixture. The musical was adapted from the book Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats by photographer Michael Cunningham and journalist Craig Marberry. The book features more than 50 women decked out in their Sunday best, telling their stories in their own words. Those stories form the backbone of Crowns, which relies on a loose collection of vignettes more than a traditional narrative. Each of the show's seven scenes is centered on a different ceremony or celebration within the religious community (a baptism, a wedding, a funeral procession, etc.) that reflects the lives of its members.

  "I want the audience to feel as if they are at a revival," Myrick says. "Revival means restoration — to come back to life again, to celebrate, to glorify."

  Myrick compares the storytelling style of Crowns to another well-known work, Ntozake Shange's for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf, a show remarkable partly for its unconventional weaving of emotional narratives.

  "It doesn't give you a map," Myrick says of Crowns, acknowledging the unique script creates challenges for a director, but also provides opportunities to hone in on characters that do more than just drive the plot.

  In preparing Crowns for the stage, Myrick says she often recalled a quote from civil rights-era author James Baldwin, who said, "Our crown has already been bought and paid for. All we have to do is wear it." When asked to elaborate, Myrick pauses briefly before responding with care and conviction.

  "It means that as Africans living in America, transported via the transatlantic slave trade, our suffering has evolved hard and difficult, but we have survived, and that survival is our glory," she says. "So we should always walk with our heads up, with pride and dignity, and know that our crown has been bought and paid for. We paid for it in the blood of our ancestors, we paid for it in our sweat and our tears, and we pay for it still in society today."

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