There's Attitude, And Then There's 'Hat-itude'

In the musical CROWNS, a young woman is sent to live with her grandmother after a tragic loss and gets to know the elder's circle of church-going friends. The proud women teach life lessons that revolve around themes colorful, vibrant hats, or "crowns", worn as part of their church wardrobe. The actresses from CROWNS explain their characters and the symbolism of the hats among African-American women.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. It's Easter Monday where we are, and those of you who went to church over the weekend just might, if you were lucky, have seen some amazing hats.

For some women, particularly African-American women of a certain age, hats are as essential a part of Sunday wear as, well, the shoes on their feet. For many women, their hats are their crowns, and that is the title of a popular musical being staged for the fourth time by the Arena Stage Production Group in Washington, D.C.

The performers not only bring the fashion of the black church to the stage, they also bring the sound.

(Soundbite of stage play, "CROWNS")

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) Pharaoh's army…

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Pharaoh's army.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) …were thrown in a sea.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Thrown in the Red Sea.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) Oh, Mary.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Oh, Mary, don't weep.

Unidentified Woman #2: (Singing) I'm singing Mary.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Oh, Mary, don't weep.

Unidentified Woman #2: (Singing) I'm singing Mary.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Oh, Mary, don't weep.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) Tell mama not to mope.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Tell mama not to mope, oh.

MARTIN: The musical explores the joys and sorrows in the lives of six African-American women, as told through the eyes of a young teenager from Brooklyn named Yolanda who's been sent to live with her grandmother in South Carolina.

But there's something else special about this production. It's being staged at the historic Lincoln Theater on what used to be called Black Broadway, and the role of Yolanda is played by Zurin Villanueva, who's expected to graduate next month from Howard University and is making her professional debut in this production.

And I'm pleased to welcome now Marva Hicks, who plays Velma, NaTasha Yvette Williams, who plays Mabel, and a special welcome to Zurin Villanueva, who plays Yolanda. Hello, my divas. Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

Ms. MARVA HICKS (Actress): Hello.

Ms. NaTASHA YVETTE WILLIAMS (Actress): Hello, diva.

Ms. ZURIN VILLANUEVA (Actress): Hello. How are you doing diva?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Who are sadly hatless.

Unidentified Woman #3: Yes, very sadly.

Unidentified Woman #4: I'm so sorry.

MARTIN: I can't even describe.

Unidentified Woman #4: Michel, I apologize. I didn't wear - I didn't bring a hat today.

Unidentified Woman #5: I must say, Marva and I went and did a little shopping this morning, and both of us bought some crowns.

MARTIN: You bought your own crowns. I would not think you would need to buy a crown at this point.

Unidentified Woman #6: Zurin bought her first, real, stylish, lady hat last night.

MARTIN: Okay, a real hat. Well, let's talk about the production. Marva, your character, Velma, tells us about what hats mean. Let us just play a short clip, and we'll talk about it. Here it is.

(Soundbite of stage play, "CROWNS")

Ms. HICKS: (As Velma) You'll learn ways to keep your hat on your head. Don't let people touch the hat. Don't let people knock the hat, and don't let people hug too close. Those are the hat-wearing rules.

Unidentified Group: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Did you come by your hat-itude honestly? Did you grow up wearing hats?

Ms. HICKS: I don't know, Michel. I did not, really. I grew up in a family of women that appreciated hats, that worked for their hats, that hats were an important part of their outfits, you know, particularly for the holidays and Easter. I always had a hat and gloves. I remember those lovely days.

MARTIN: The production makes the point that hats have such an historic - an important, kind of historic importance to African-American women. What is that importance for people who haven't yet seen the production and don't know about it?

Ms. HICKS: Well, you know that old expression, crowning glory is very much a part of our culture, and we're not sure. We start the show in (unintelligible), which takes us all the way back to the Motherland. And, I mean, that's the first hat that I think we experience as part of our culture.

But I think it's just something that just completes us somehow. You know, it's a very high calling. When you wear a hat, it puts you in a different sort of a status. You feel a little more lifted up when you have that crown on your head. I don't know what that is. Maybe it's a spiritual thing, as well as a cultural thing, but it lifts you up a notch.

MARTIN: NaTasha, you play…

Ms. WILLIAMS: I play Mabel. Yes.

MARTIN: Tell us about Mabel. She's the wife of a pastor.

Ms. WILLIAMS: She is. Mabel's a little fiery, and she likes to tell it like it is. She is the preacher's wife, and a lot of times, we have this stereotypical thing about some first ladies who are very, this is the way its supposed to be. Your dress should be this long and not this short and this tight and all those kinds of things. So Mabel brings that kind of energy.

(Soundbite of song, "His Eye is on the Sparrow")

Ms. WILLIAMS: (Singing) Oh, I sing because I'm happy.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Because I'm happy.

Ms. WILLIAMS: (Singing) Oh, and I sing because I'm free. His eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches over me.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Watches over me.

Ms. WILLIAMS: (Singing) Yes, yes I sing…

Ms. WILLIAMS: We have a cast of seven, and each of the women are different and each of the women are actually a part of Mother Shaw and different facets of her personality, basically.

MARTIN: There's also a man in the production, I should mention, very talented as well.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Yes.

MARTIN: But he's just named Man.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Yeah.

MARTIN: Because he plays everybody's man.

Ms. WILLIAMS: He's the uncle, the father, he's my brother-in-law. He's all of that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Woman #7: Couple of husbands.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Marva Hicks, NaTasha Yvette Williams and Zurin Villanueva about the play "CROWNS." Zurin, you are making your professional debut with "CROWNS" and the part of Yolanda. How did you get the part?

Ms. VILLANUEVA: Well, I heard from one of my professors at a final in December that they were re-auditioning for Yolanda, actually, none other than Henry Edmunds, the one who made the announcement. And I was like, oh, my God, I have to go again. Because I had gone once and I didn't hear anything. So when I heard that they were doing it again, I was like, oh, got to go. So I went and I was really - I just had fire in my eyes, like I was really - I put a new monologue on its feet. I had a new song…

MARTIN: Well, tell me about - I don't want to give everything away, but the part of Yolanda, she's been sent to live with her grandmother because of a loss. She's grieving. She's in a little bit of denial about the grieving. If you can just tell me a little bit about how you went about forming her character?

Ms. VILLANUEVA: Well, the first thing I did was remember all of the girls that I grew up around, because I am from Brooklyn myself. And there is just - I know I already have the New York edge that people tell me I have. I don't realize it, but they say I already have that. But I wanted to make sure that it wasn't me, it wasn't my edge, because I'm actually the oddball that I've always been.

So I wanted to make sure that I really got that Brooklyn girl that I've seen so many times. And there's really a beauty, like they're hard, but they're really not. And there's a beauty in that because they just - they respect themselves and they hold themselves up so nicely, even though they're little kids going crazy. You know, there's still that fire, that strength. And that's what I wanted to bring to Yolanda.

MARTIN: In a way, it was Yolanda sort of getting back to her soft place or giving herself permission to get back into her soft place, a womanly place.

Ms. VILLANUEVA: And I think that could only have happened where she was sent, that there's no way that she would have done that in New York because of where you are, like your image is everything. So I feel like that really is what put the catalyst for letting it go.

MARTIN: And here's Yolanda singing "Joy Like a Fountain."

(Soundbite of stage play, "CROWNS")

(Soundbite of song, "Joy Like a Fountain")

Ms. VILLANUEVA: (Singing) I've got joy like a fountain. I've got joy like a fountain in my soul. I've got joy like a fountain. I've got joy like a fountain. I've got joy like a fountain in my soul.

MARTIN: NaTasha, talk to me about Mabel. As you mentioned, that the preacher's wife is often the, you know, object of, you know, stereotype. People all have opinions about what, you know, a preacher's wife is supposed to be about. How did you go about forming the character? And to keep it fresh for you? This is like your third…

Ms. WILLIAMS: Yeah.

MARTIN: …third production.

Ms. WILLIAMS: That's a different role, though. It's a different role for me this time, so that certainly helped. There's, you know, the whole gamut of first ladies. You have all kinds of different first ladies. This one reminds me about - of a lady in a Pentecostal church. I sort of patterned it after her, and I don't attend that church, but I just remembered seeing her. And every time, she just commands this respect. And it's not like an admiration kind of thing. You're almost afraid of this particular first lady. So I won't mention her name, but…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WILLIAMS: …that was basically how I patterned this particular character out of her - not that I want people to be afraid of Mabel, but just to be different. We all, I know, Marva and I talked at one point about trying to make the people, the women, different, because we are a slice of one character, one person, basically, trying to make sure that they had different personalities. So that's the route, I chose to go with this stern, rather stern. But, you know, Mabel, you also get to see her, at the end, be a little soft when she talks more about her family, her father, and not her religious beliefs. So there is, you know, the full gamut, hopefully, in the character itself.

MARTIN: But she's also a loved woman. You can see her, she's a woman who has been loved. I mean, this isn't just that she's just, you know, this kind of the finger wagger.

Ms. WILLIAMS: No, no, no. Not at all.

MARTIN: She loves her congregation, and they love her. You can tell that there is love there, which I think is…

Ms. WILLIAMS: Yes.

MARTIN: And she's kind of funny. She's a little bit funny. So - hopefully.

Ms. VILLANEUVA: Kind of?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. VILLANEUVA: A smidge, right, NaTasha? No, she is a riot. A riot.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Just a little bit. Just a little bit.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Marva, tell us about Velma. And how did you develop her distinct character? Velma's very particular.

Ms. HICKS: I'm happy to see that you can pick that out, because I had these conversations, as NaTasha said, I had it with Ken(ph), I was like, I can't figure this woman out. Because you know that the stories are taken from - it's a tapestry. It's from a book, a table-top book.

MARTIN: "CROWNS," of course, is adapted from a book by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry, which is also called "CROWNS," where they went and interviewed women about their real hats.

Ms. HICKS: And so Velma was hard to - for me to sort of pick out, well, exactly who is she? Because they have her sort of all over the place. But the one thing she is is a funeral director. So I could take that because my granddaddy - I'm a PK. My grandfather was a preacher, and so we literally had relationships with all the morticians in town.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HICKS: And so I had to sort of think about is, like, what female morticians? I was, like, oh, yeah. There were a couple of them. And I sort of they were always kind of - they may seem a little askew, because, you know, people that deal with, you know, the remains, are, you know, that takes a special kind of thing. And then I have a friend whose mother still works in the business, the Martunis(ph) family. They're in the funeral business. And so I thought it, and I said well, you know, she's very bright. And so, you know, she doesn't have to be morbid. You know, so I found a way to make her just a little bit of left, because we all got that little bit of left in us.

MARTIN: Well, what I like is she's very particular about trying to make it work with the hats. If people want to wear the hats for their final viewing…

Ms. HICKS: Yes, yes, yes, yes. So, I like that part of her. And so she's turned out to be fun for me, but very sincere. And like I said, a little left. She's a little…

MARTIN: I wanted to ask, though, that "CROWNS," Marva, I think it was you who said that it captures the history, that the history of the importance of the adorning of women, particularly - I think most women, but particularly in the African-American community. And I wonder whether this culture will survive. None of you grew up wearing hats. Your parents did. We all, maybe as little girls, we wore those stiff hats, with little gloves, those stiffy straps with the little daisies on them. Do you think that…

Ms. VILLANEUVA: I don't know. I…

Ms. HICKS: See, Zurin's aching. She's busting at the seam over there.

Ms. VILLANEUVA: I think - this is what I think. I think, yes, it has kind of drifted away. But as we get closer to our community and get closer, like, as a family - each family getting closer, and those kinds of things, those hats will come back. Our traditions come back.

Ms. HICKS: We have a scene where we talk about pass it down, pass it down. And that has been the detriment, I think, of a lot of our communities. We don't pass down how wonderful we are. We don't pass down how wonderful we can be a lot of the time. And some of us don't. And I think as more people become, as you were saying, Zurin, just closer and involved and continue to recognize that it is our responsibility to tell people why we're doing this, why we're wearing these hats, why it's important and why we should value the history that comes along with why we do the things we do. Because there's…

Ms. WILLIAMS: I think it's resurging, though. I think just based on the people that have come in the audience with their hats on, which we love. We love looking out and finding somebody in a fantastic hat.

MARTIN: The people behind them don't love it.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Oh, I know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HICKS: You make a good point there, unfortunately. But the thing is I think it's coming back. There're so many beautiful hats and the art of being a milliner - is that what they call hat makers?

MARTIN: Yes, milliner.

Ms. HICKS: It's just beautiful. And I think I see a resurge. I'm not seeing as many hats as - or maybe it's because I'm aware of it, because of the show.

Ms. WILLIAMS: And not necessarily the church hats that are so fancy and that we wear in church…

Ms. VILLANEUVA: Yeah that's what I mean. All hats.

Ms. WILLIAMS: …but just everyday hats and covering and wraps, you know, I think are coming back. But it's all akin to each other, but - those are the stories I think we need to tell, about how they blend.

MARTIN: "CROWNS" is adapted from the book of the same name by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry. It is being staged by Arena Stage at the historic Lincoln Theatre in Washington, D.C. It features performances by Marva Hicks, NaTasha Yvette Williams and Zurin Villanueva. Zurin is expected to receive her degree from Howard University next month.

(Soundbite of cheering)

MARTIN: They all joined me here in our Washington, D.C. studios. For more information about "CROWNS," please visit our Web site at npr.org/tellmemore. Ladies, divas, thank you all so much.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Thank you.

Ms. VILLANEUVA: Thank you.

Ms. HICKS: Thank you.

Ms. VILLANEUVA: Thanks for having us.

Ms. WILLIAMS: And all the best to you.

(Soundbite of stage play, "CROWNS")

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman #8: (Singing) I've got a crown, you got a crown. All of God's children got crowns.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) When I get to heaven, gonna put on my crown.

Unidentified Woman #8: (Singing) Gonna walk all over…

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Walk, walk.

Unidentified Woman #8: (Singing) I'm gonna talk all over…

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Talk, talk.

Unidentified Woman #8: (Singing) I'm gonna sing all over…

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Sing, sing.

Unidentified Woman #8: (Singing) I'm gonna shout all over…

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Shout, shout.

Unidentified Woman #8: (Singing) I'm gonna walk all over…

Unidentified Group: (Singing) All over.

Unidentified Woman #8: (Singing) …this beautiful heaven.

MARTIN: Amen. To watch a short video from "CROWNS," which is to say, to see some amazing hats, please go to our Web site. Go to npr.org and click on TELL ME MORE.

And Easter may be behind us, but TELL ME MORE has its own special celebration coming up. Our program's second anniversary is just around the corner. Can you believe it? It's been almost two years since we made our big radio debut. And as with any birthday, we're thinking about what we want to do differently and what we want to do better in the next year.

So you tell us. What do you love about TELL ME MORE, and what could use a little improvement? To tell us more about what you think, please call our comment line at 202-842-3522. That's 202-842-3522. Please remember to tell us your name, or you can always go to our Web page at npr.org and blog it out. And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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