12-19: Crowning Glory
Hair & Hats Centerstage
"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, whether
it's the intricate braids or the distinct hairstyles or the beautiful
hats we wear on Sundays. We just know inside that we're queens.
And these are the crowns we wear."
quoted in "Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats"
By Tobi Tobias
Copyright 2002 Tobi Tobias
NEW YORK -- Feminist
doctrine, eager to dissuade us from giving over much attention to
millinery and hairdos, cautions that what goes on inside a woman's
head is far more significant than what's on it. A pair of feisty,
engaging productions recently playing New York -- Jawole Willa Jo
Zollar's "HairStories" and Regina Taylor's "Crowns," with choreography
by Ronald K. Brown -- insist that the issue isn't so simple. Both
works, generated by black artists, show that matters like hats and
hair are far from being trivial or frivolous but, rather, harbor
deep psychological and sociological significance. Both belong to
a brand of theater in which aesthetic concerns take a back seat
to issues. Purists and postmodernists may dismiss this genre as
old-fashioned. It is, nonetheless, attractive in its simple accessibility
and heartwarming in its humanity.
by Elizabeth A. Herron and performed by Zollar's Urban Bush Women,
mixes movement and talking -- the latter from the live dancers and
interspersed videotaped interviews. It has two things to say. One:
People in the black Diaspora have long been shamed by the thick,
tight-curling nature of their hair, their self-image undermined
by its being judged ugly, even somehow "bad," by a dominant white
culture fixated on European ideals of beauty. Two: In recent decades
the descendents of African-American slaves have rediscovered African
concepts of glorious hair and used them audaciously to cultivate
self-expression, self-worth, and cultural identity. None of this
is news. Still, some things need to be told and retold before they're
Documenting the shift
in perception from "hair that just don't listen" to "hair with an
attitude," "HairStories" is by turns funny, angry, poignant, and
celebratory. It's loosely organized as a series of scenes dealing
with matters like the tortures of hair straightening (and how the
procedure has perversely encouraged female bonding) and intergenerational
conflict within the African-American community over hairstyles --
Afros, dreads -- that challenge the status quo. Along the way, it
offers a thesaurus of the epithets applied to black people's hair
-- kinky, nappy, zing-booms -- and illustrates the spunky tactic
of reappropriation, which converts insult into praise. (Think, for
example, of the turnabout meaning the street has given to the word
"HairStories" is rooted
in personal anecdote, a slight genre, to be sure, but one that expands
into the resonant realms of oral history and into the Pentecostal
church tradition of "testifying" -- voicing one's spiritual experience
and convictions before supportive witnesses. Doing preliminary research
for the piece, Zollar and her group conducted "hair parties," informal
local gatherings at which people told their individual tales on
the subject. The finished production relies heavily on the pleasure
and reinforcement found in such sharing and guilelessly offers itself
in this vein to the audience in the theater. "HairStories" also
depends on the lively pulse of the spoken word, which is mirrored
by the rhythms of the dancing. Evident here, too, is the call-and-response
style of communication, a feature of black church services that
has spilled over to non-ecclesiastical gatherings. It's not in the
least surprising to find among Zollar's sources Carolivia Herron's
irresistible children's book "Nappy Hair" (Knopf, 1997), in which
an assembled extended family addresses the hair issue in this way:
"When we looked down
on her in the cradle,
What did we see?
We all shout out and jump back.
Did we jump!
Laugh and shout, because I tell you she had the kinkiest, the nappiest,
the fuzziest, the most screwed up, squeezed up, knotted up, tangled
up, twisted up, nappiest -- I'm telling you, she had the nappiest
hair you've ever seen in your life.
That's what it was.
And the Lord.
The Lord in heaven.
What you say.
The Lord who brought the Israelites out of Egypt.
Yes, he did.
He looked down on this cute little brown baby girl.
He looked at her.
He looked at her and he say, 'Well done.'"
The striking, often
elaborate hats that African-American women have traditionally worn
to their Pentecostal Sunday services have served purposes similar
to those of "liberated" hair. These hats are gallantly earned and
worn by women whose financial, educational, and social status has
often been unjustly restricted but who are rich in resources of
spirit. Their hats are a manifestation of identity -- of pride in
one's self and pride in one's ancestry.
"Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats," a lovely book
of photographs accompanied by brief oral histories from the wearers,
documents the phenomenon. Created by Michael Cunningham (images)
and Craig Marberry (text), the book was published by Doubleday in
2000; it is still in print and will enhance your coffee table --
to say nothing of your spirit -- greatly. In adapting the book for
the eponymous show, Regina Taylor, who also directed the production,
simply created a story line on which to hang the individual bits
of testimony, which reveal the women's dignity, stamina, conviction,
piety, humor, and ability to absorb a helluva lot of woe in order
to survive and bear witness.
As Marberry explains
in his introductory note to the book, God and the church required
a hat; the impulse to self-adornment ran in tandem with the more
"When the Apostle Paul
wrote an open letter to the Corinthians (I Corinthians 11:5), decreeing
that a woman cover her head when at worship to symbolize her obedience
to God and the church hierarchy, he could not have imagined the
flamboyance with which African-American women would comply. For
generations, black women have interpreted Apostle Paul's edict with
boundless passion and singular flair.... These captivating hats
are not mere fashion accessories. Neither, despite their biblical
roots, are they solely religious headgear. Church hats are a peculiar
convergence of faith and fashion that keeps the Sabbath both holy
In this aspiration to
"being beauteous" -- a sign both of robust psychological health
and the impulse to art -- we see yet another parallel with African-American
women's attitude toward their hair.
The theatrical production
of "Crowns" has stirred interest in the dance world because Ronald
K. Brown is given credit for the choreography. Though everyone in
the show moves vividly and well, it's hard to see anything this
very talented choreographer has actually invented. All the movement,
most of it a highly inflected gestural accompaniment to speech and
song, looks utterly natural. It's the style of a people who allow
their bodies to be animated by their feelings and their messages.
The vitality and fluency of the movement, along with its gratifying
sense of center, are especially noteworthy because the performers
in "Crowns" are not dancer-types. Five of the cast's six women are
generously proportioned, only one of them could be considered young,
and another looks like a venerable matriarch. Yet they are as memorable
in their physicality as they are in their speech and song. As for
the sole male in the cast, a chameleon of multiple roles, he is
nowhere so convincing and seductive as when he executes a sly bit
Granted, neither "Crowns"
or "HairStories" can be called a major theatrical achievement. But
both are so deeply enjoyable, they deserve our attention. They are
rooted in real life and they exult in it.
"HairStories." Conceived and written by Jawole Willa Jo Zollar.
Choreography by Zollar in collaboration with the performers. Co-directed
by Elizabeth A. Herron. Video by Carmella Vassor. Lighting by Roma
Flowers. Costumes by Tasha Monique Carter. Research by Richard Green.
Performed by Urban Bush Women: Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, Maria Bauman,
Shaneeka Harrell, Millicent Johnnie, Dionne Kamara, Wanjiru Kamuyu,
Francine Sheffield, and Makeda Thomas. Premiere August 23, 2001,
Doris Duke Theater, Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, Becket, Massachusetts.
Performed October 24-27, 2002, 651 Arts, Brooklyn, New York.
"Crowns." Written and
directed by Regina Taylor. Based on the book "Crowns: Portraits
of Black Women in Church Hats" by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry
(Doubleday, 2000). Choreography by Ronald K. Brown. Music direction
and arrangements by Linda Twine. Percussion scoring by David Pleasant.
Sets by Riccardo Hernandez. Costumes by Emilio Sosa. Lighting by
Robert Perry. Performed by Lawrence Clayton, Carmen Ruby Floyd,
Harriett D. Foy, Lynda Gravatt, Janet Hubert, Ebony Jo-Ann, and
Lillias White. Premiere October 15, 2002, McCarter Theatre Center,
Princeton, New Jersey. New York City premiere December 3, 2002,
Second Stage Theatre. Scheduled to run through January 5, 2003.