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Vignette, 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."

--Felecia McMillan, 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.

"HairStories," co-directed 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 rightly absorbed.

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 bad.)

"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 sober purpose:

"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 and glamorous."

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 of soft-shoe.

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.

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