By PAM HARBAUGH
Might need shades to watch the musical “Crowns,” opening Friday in the Henegar Center’s second floor Studio Theatre. Director Keenan Carver says the show and his cast positively shine.
The 2002 musical, written by Regina Taylor and based on the book by photographer Michael Cunningham and journalist Craig Marberry, explores the lives of six African American women, their traditions and how their hats reveal their personal stories.
“The show warms my heart because of the tradition,” Carver said. “The stories the women tell remind me of my sister, my mother, a lot of people in my community.”
And it’s fitting that “Crowns” should imply they sit atop a regal woman because “queen” is a common term for women in the black community, said Nichole Savage, who plays the role of Wanda in the show.
“It’s a way of lifting us up, a way of revering our women,” she said. “It’s a way we do that for ourselves.”
The musical revolves around Yolanda, a 17 year-old young woman who, along with her brother, runs wild on the streets. Her brother is killed and her mother, hoping to protect her daughter, sends Yolanda to the south to live with her grandmother. The grandmother turns to her own friends and together, they tell their stories to Yolanda and evoke change.
In a YouTube video, Taylor, the award winning playwright and actress explained: “I think this piece speaks to us about the tenacity of the human spirit. How do we get through the dark times..how we can bond together, grow together, support each other.”
Watch the video here:
Regarding the songs, Taylor said the music crossed with slaves into the Middle Passage, into slavery, into America, into “field hollers”, then into blues and rap and yes, church.
“The African American church tradition took those tunes and married them to Christianity,” she said.
The cast for the Henegar production is “100 percent perfect” for the musical, said director Keenan Carver.
While this is Carver’s first time directing, he’s known to the Henegar audiences for his fine performances in musicals and plays including “Smokey Joe’s Café,” “Forever Plaid” and “I and You.” He also played an astronaut in “Dark Side” this summer in the space now known as the Not Quite Right Theatre.
The biggest directing challenge for Carver was sharing time with the Henegar’s recent production of “The Wiz.” Half of his cast was in that big mainstage show.
“It was excruciating,” he said, laughing. “But I loved coaching on monologues. A lot of directors hate monologues and I love them. It was very heart warming to feel the response and trust from my cast. To pull it out of them.”
It may be his first time out at directing, but he’s already won over the hearts of his actors, says Nichole Savage of West Melbourne.
Savage, who grew up in Brevard, has been working on a career as a singer in a classic rock band in South Florida. This is her first time in a dramatic setting.
“Oh my gosh, (Carver) is amazing,” Savage said. “This is probably my first show where the character has so many layers. He has really pulled the character out of me. I’m so thankful he’s my first acting director.”
The actors all have favorite lines which speak to the tradition of the hats and to the women’s mighty collection of them.
Savage got the part of Wanda, a woman whose life has been steeped in the tradition of church and who says its righteous to get dressed up in your best Sunday clothes. “When I get dressed to go to church I’m going to meet the King so I must look my best.”
Brian Hancock, who plays the Preacher, said his favorite line is: “You’re supposed to go to be refreshed and renewed in the Lord, but I’ve heard many a woman say, ‘I can’t go this year. I don’t have the wardrobe.’ ”
Angela Harper is Jeanette in the musical. Her line is one that is often quoted: “You can flirt with a fan, but you can really flirt with a hat.”
Nina Jones is Velma, who says “Sometimes under those hats there’s a lot joy and a lot of sorrow.”
J’Renee Dickson is Mabel, who quickly warns “Listen – Never touch my hat. Admire it from a distance.”
Donnie McNair is The Man, who plays multiple characters and at one point, as a husband laments to his hat-loving wife: “You don’t have but one head.”
And Mother Shaw, the grandmother, is played by Carol Chisolm. She knows the power and confidence a good hat can bring: “I bought that hat – and strutted out just like I strutted in.”
Orlando actress Shanteria Strowbridge plays Yolanda. As her character becomes more moved by the stories she hears, she says “The more I study Africa, the more I see that African Americans do very African things without even knowing it. Adorning the head is one of those things.”
As a Jamaican American, Savage was thrilled that the Henegar decided to mount a production of “Crowns” because it rich in African American history. She’s also happy that the production is being done in November rather than February, which is typically when cultural and community organizations have programming exploring African American history and issues.
“It is refreshing that they chose this time of year,” she said. “It’s not just African American history, or Black history, this is American history. It should be important to everyone.
In addition to the eight actresses, there are two musicians on stage throughout the show. They are keyboardist Cedieu Xavier-Gantt, a junior studying biomedical engineering at Florida Tech, and percussionist Jordan Fuqua, a senior studying organizational management at Eastern Florida State College.
A classically trained pianist who began studying at age four, Xavier-Gantt said the reason he “took on the gig” was because his mother has always urged him to play in church.
However, he stuck with classical music meaning he learned to read music rather than to play by ear, which is the standard for gospel music.
To take on this part, Xavier-Gantt took the score and learned about the structure and pattern of gospel music. And, a couple actors loaned him their hymnals.
“This is the opportunity for me to delve into gospel,” he said. “So I’m extremely excited about it.”
SIDE O’ GRITS: “Crowns” runs Nov. 9 to 18 in the second floor Studio Theatre at the Henegar Center, 625 E. New Haven Ave., Melbourne. Tickets are $29 general, $26 senior/military and $19 for students. Call 321-723-8698 or visit Henegar.org.
This is an edited version of a story running Thursday in Melbourne Beachsider.