What were your thoughts and intentions as you revised and reshaped Crowns to make the play more contemporary on its 10th anniversary?
This really has been a joy, and it’s been about connecting to new communities in Chicago. I just moved here about a year and a half ago, and I wanted it to be connected with Chicago in some way. So starting with the rewrites, the young girl, Yolanda, who is 17, is the central character. I wanted her to come from Englewood because of the gang violence. Her brother is shot down in the street and her mother, fearing for her daughter, sends Yolanda down to her grandmother in Darlington. She’s a hat queen, meaning she has at least 100 hats, and each hat has a story about their lives. All of these memories they share with Yolanda, letting her know that she is not alone in the things she’s been through in life. They give her foundation in terms of their history, history of being an African-American and woman. They give her solid foundation and roots so that she can get back up to grow, and then they send her back to Chicago with new eyes.
What are your feelings about this play when you consider how successful it has been during the past 10 years?
I feel very blessed that it has continued to have such wonderful success. I’m always surprised and feel very blessed by that.
To what do you attribute the continued popularity?
I think that people can connect to this piece on many different levels. It certainly celebrates the African-American culture and history, and these wonderful hat queens. It can relate to people who know hat queens. It connects by what we pass down from one generation to the next––what the next generation can gain from their traditions and history and what they make of that history into their own unique way of living their lives. I think people can enjoy the music, the history and the personal stories. So it brings different communities together, whether you’re African-American, White, Latino or Asian. It connects worlds together in, I think, a very honest, authentic and emotional way.
Now that you’ve witnessed 10 years of success, what would you have considered success in the beginning?
I was happy to have the first production at McCarter Theatre in Princeton, N.J., and to have audiences come in and enjoy it. What struck me after that first production as I was leaving the theater, I saw people who didn’t know each other out in the parking lot talking about the play. That surprised me, and I felt that was success for me. I was very happy in that moment and that was more than enough for me.
Does that still occur?
Yes, it does! Not only that, but people come from different cities to see the play. Wherever it plays, people from surrounding cities come to see it. You have Crowns groupies now.
What message would you like to audience to come away with after witnessing this production?
I think it’s about the tenacity of the human spirit. I think it’s what one person, one life has to offer to the next generation and what that generation can carry from another person’s life and have that seed planted … and be stronger in their own way.
After 10 years, things change. So how do you address the cultural changes that have taken place?
It’s in the new material that I’m working with. The central character, Yolanda is 17 years old and [it takes place] in present day. Plus, we are using some spoken word and rap, as well as movement with hip-hop street dance.
With this being the most produced musical in the U.S. during the last 10 years, was there ever a thought that if it’s not broken don’t fix it?
It’s not about being fixed; I never thought it needed to be fixed. It’s wonderful for an artist to come back to a piece and have it be a living being, that it lives and breathes and kind of takes in its surroundings. So it’s making sure it is about what’s happening right now. For instance, the idea about Yolanda being from Englewood and anchoring it to what is an issue in the African-American experience. We know this story about wanting to reclaim our young people. What I’ve done only supports and enhances that which was already there and makes the piece more contemporary.
If someone saw this production 10 years ago, how would his or her experience be different today?
I know my own experience. My experience is being reintroduced to a loved one you haven’t seen in a while and making discoveries about that loved one that you didn’t necessarily see before. It is about tracking traditions in the African-American church that go back, connecting to Africa in one direction that the music of the African-American church in tunes and rhythms of Africa that’s married to the poetry of the Bible. But it also has its arms and legs spread through blues, jazz, hip-hop, as well as the movement. It’s tied to African traditions, tribal dance, but we also see the thread of that through the Charleston, Lindy Hop and street dancing of today. We are making those connections throughout the piece. So it’s been really great working with Dianne McIntyre, our choreographer, and Fred Carl, our musical director. Plus, we do have new music in the show, wonderful pieces. And people who have contributed their talents, including Fred Carl, Kirsten Chiles, and Gary Dennis Hines from Sounds of Blackness, Carl Maillard, Delores Robinson from Sweet Honey in the Rock. Really wonderful pieces.
Is this play in any way a reflection of your life?
It has a connection to my life. I’m from the South––Dallas, Texas. As I was working on this piece originally and doing the research, I’d never been a big hat wearer, but certainly knew hat queens who surrounded me. I was telling my mother about this project and she walked me to a closet and she told me the story about each of the hats. Each one had a story about a baptism, a wedding, a funeral––markers in her life. All of these hats had stories about my mother that I never knew about. The connection of these hats was like a layer of skin, and I was owning these memories she was passing down to me. What I did with those stories…I then understood better how to approach this play. That’s what I claimed from her stories. And when we first opened the play at McCarter Theatre, I bought my first real hat, and that hat was the same hat that I wore to my mother’s funeral. And that hat started collecting the memories about my life.
So are you a hat wearer now?
I’m not a hat queen, but I do wear hats. I have a much smaller collection than my mother had.
How do you navigate your career as an actress, playwright and director?
It always goes back and forth. Sometimes it’s a juggling act. When I was doing The Unit, I was also writing and directing a couple of plays as well. Now I am very much in writing and directing mode, particularly with Crowns at this moment, but also with the commission from Signature Theater in New York City. They’ve commissioned me to write three plays that will be produced over the next five years. I’m very focused on writing and directing at this moment, but as soon as I get some breathing space, I’ll go back to acting.
Do you prefer one area to another?
I look at it as a whole body in how I think about this profession. As one has your arms and legs, sometimes they move together and sometimes they move separately. So I couldn’t choose one over the other.
You’ve been in Chicago over a year and half now, and I saw you throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at U.S. Cellular Field before a White Sox game. Do you feel like a real Chicagoan now?
I had the best time at the ballpark. It was so amazing. That was awesome. A couple of days before, a friend of mine took me to the park and taught me how to throw a ball because I didn’t want to embarrass myself too much. And I almost got it to the plate. I was so excited. I was so thrilled, and now I feel like I’m a real Chicagoan.
Coming from Dallas and being familiar with many other parts of the country, what are your impressions of Chicago?
I absolutely love Chicago. I think it’s a very well-kept secret. It’s the best of many worlds. It’s southern enough; it’s northern enough. It’s laid back, and it has a pulse and energy to it. It’s a very exciting city, culturally, with the arts, the theater is amazing, the music scene, the museums, the restaurants. And the people are very open and genuine. You can walk down the street and catch a conversation. I have totally embraced it and am totally in love with Chicago.
Tell me about your tenure as a Distinguished Artistic Associate at the Goodman Theatre and how that might have contributed to your creativity.
I’ve been with the Theatre about 18 years now, starting with one of my first plays that was at the Goodman [Watermelon Rinds]. Again, I feel very blessed in having the ability to work in this theater––to write, to act, to direct in this artistic home. It’s a very rare opportunity, I think, for any artist, whether they are female or African-American…it’s a rare opportunity for any artist to build a career in a space like the Goodman Theatre, where you are doing all of those things.
Now that you’ve completed your revisions of Crowns and seen it on stage, what are your feelings?
I’m very excited about connecting this piece to the city. It is a piece that lives on the stage at the Goodman, but at the same time it lives in different areas of the city. It’s a collaging of music, movement and projections. To achieve this, we had to reach out to different areas of the community––working with Louder Than A Bomb on spoken word, and we did workshops with 17- to 21-year-old females. It was exciting to connect them with the character of Yolanda, and we wanted to hear from the Yolandas all across this city. Much of what was created in workshops, I’ve incorporated those pieces into the play. We connected with different churches, and some representatives from those churches will sing in the lobby of the theater, along with guest artists who will perform on the stage. We’ve worked with the Abraham Lincoln Center to do dance workshops and see the correlation between African dance and hip-hop. We interviewed people like Pastor Corey Brooks and Ameena Matthews [of CeaseFire Illinois] on the work they do in Englewood. All of these things are happening around the scene of Crowns, so it is a collaging of what’s on the stage and what’s going on around the city.
For more information about Crowns, go to www.goodmantheatre.org