Posted by Bruce Miller
In association with the African American Repertory Theatre, Barksdale opened the revival of Crowns yesterday afternoon at the Gottwald Playhouse at CenterStage. Based on that terrific opening (and the enthusiastic audience response that accompanied it), we have every reason to hope for a replay of the critical and popular success we enjoyed when our two theatres first co-produced Crowns at Willow Lawn in 2005.
Yesterday's wonderful opening was all the more satisfying knowing how hard so many people worked to get Crowns back on its feet. Both in 2005 and again in 2010, we hit a few bumps in the road on the rugged path between first rehearsal and first performance.
When Crowns premiered at NYC's Second Stage in 2002, I read the review in the Times and knew I should take a trip north to see it. The show was only a moderate success in the Big Apple, but it had all the hallmarks of being a mega-hit here in Richmond.
Penned by the great African American actress Regina Taylor, the fervent gospel musical is adapted from Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry's book Crowns - Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats. The interviews that comprise the text of the book are the stories that are retold in the show. Most of the interviews were conducted with church women throughout the South. Many of the stories take place in Richmond.
The women of Crowns talk of their experiences buying hats at Thalhimer's and Montaldo's. They relive their university days, participating in sit-ins at segregated lunch counters. Anyone who grew up in Richmond (as I did), and read the book and/or saw the show, immediately recognized the moving (and frequently hilarious) stories of courage and faith.
When I saw the show in New York, it all seemed a little too glitzy and showbizzy to be real. At least that was my opinion. The actresses in New York really knew how to sing, but they sounded more like Broadway divas than Southern gospel singers. Their dances seemed more designed for the stage than the sanctuary. Everything seemed a little too rehearsed and lacking in spontaneity. Most important, the actresses' connection to the moving and outright funny stories often seemed to be at arm's length.
I knew that when we did the show in Richmond, I wanted to recruit a cast made up entirely of Southern church women who would approach the play not only as a performance, but also as a spiritual revisit to their personal and family memories. I wanted the experience to be authentic.
Both in 2005 and again in 2010, we cast one of Virginia's premier gospel singers in the lead. In both years, the singer began with an enthusiastic "yes"--a "yes" that eventually turned out to be a "no" once the rehearsals were underway.
In both years, the incredibly talented actress / singer whom we had cast called me three or four weeks before the opening to tell me that she had changed her mind. "God told me not to do the show." she said. She was very apologetic, very professional (in gospel terms), and very nice. She sincerely believed (and believes) that God spoke to her during prayer and told her to leave the production.
I like to believe that I too have experienced the "still small voice." I'm a Presbyterian, not a Southern Baptist, and we phrase things differently. I come from a theatre tradition and not a gospel tradition. Nonethelesss... . In 2005, and now again in 2010, I in no way impugn her belief or statement.
You want authentic, you get authentic.
Recasting a lead once rehearsals are underway can upset the apple cart a bit. Recasting a lead in 48 hours when you're stranded in Ireland (as Phil and I were) due to a volcano in Iceland can be one of those experiences you won't quickly forget.
Thankfully, Chase Kniffen was in constant contact with Phil and me when we were stuck for seven extra days on the Emerald Isle. Even more thankfully, when Chase called Margarette Joyner, a very talented singer, actor and gospel artist who happened to work in our costume shop, Margarette said "yes!"
During Crowns 2005, our second pick as leading lady was the luminous Almeida Ingram Miller. Her performance was extraordinary. In Crowns 2010, Margarette Joyner is igniting the stage once again. In both instances, I firmly believe, we wound up with the gospel queen we were meant to have.
In addition to losing our lead, Crowns had to overcome a few other challenges. We had to change pianists mid-stream after realizing that our first pianist played a very contemporary sounding gospel, while the show requires a more traditional flavor. Then our new pianist helped to pull things together by agreeing to accept additional responsibilities as our new music director.
Midway through this process, one of our highly professional and spiritual actresses bowed out of the show for a week when she feared that our changing musical leadership would not allow the show to be all that it should be. Only when the new team was firmly in place did we win our beloved actress back. Talk about committed and demanding--the Crown ladies believe in this show so much, they always put quality and authenticity first.
Once again, you want authentic ...
Then we found out the hard way that another cast member was allergic to the sawdust that drifted up from our shop into our rehearsal hall. When it became impossible for her to speak after a late night rehearsal, we knew it was time to move to another space, which we did.
Eventually, everyone joined in on and/or returned to the task at hand. Phil and I finally returned from Ireland and moved the opening back by nine days, giving us the time we needed to accommodate all the ups and downs. Things were going swimmingly until the day before opening. That's when Chase took the wooden furniture out into the alley to spray paint it black. He left it outside for five minutes to dry. When he came back, the furniture had been stolen, wet paint and all.
Of course, all of this mayhem was happening while we were preparing to open The Sound of Music--the largest show in Theatre IV and Barksdale history--on the same weekend.
Like I said, considering all this, we were THRILLED yesterday when the show went beautifully. The actresses pulled all of the love out of their souls and the magic out of their hats. The audience leaped to their feet at curtain call.
Now we can sit back and watch with pleasure as the show gets better and better as it relaxes and tightens up a bit. I don't want to understate the crazy little challenges we still face with flying fur balls and the occasional renegade hat that insists on going this way when the actress goes that. But I thank all our stars for graciously putting up with me as we on the producing end do our best to work out every kink.
The heroines / heroes of the day include our beautiful and inspired cast: De'Shionay Adkins, Desiree Roots Centeio (also serving as vocal director), Shalimar Hickman Fields, Margarette Joyner, Katherine Louis, Rose Watson and J. Ron Fleming. Once again, Leslie Owens Harrington's inspired direction and choreography continue to shine.
Sue Griffin and Audra Honaker (with a lot of help from Ms. O-H) pulled together a closet crammed with vintage church hats and matching dresses. Chase Kniffen and Trevor Riley (our stage manager) kept the show moving forward in an organized manner. The very talented Francine Jackson stepped in at the last minute as Music Director and Pianist. Our greatly appreciated Tony Williams passed on all the secrets he learned during the first Crowns run, serving as Musical Supervisor extraordinaire. David Powers built a set and a central stained glass window that take your breath away. Kenny Mullins painted everything with light to make it all look finished and beautiful.
Sound man Andrew, who joined the team (bless you, Andrew) so late that his name hasn't yet made it into the playbill, only saw two run-throughs before his first audience. Now he's working tirelessly to get all the right mics live for each of the moments when each the individual women need to be heard--a harder job than anyone could imagine until they've tried to do it.
God may have told one actress not to do this show. Thankfully, He gave everyone else a thumbs up. If you've never seen Crowns before, or if you saw it five years ago and enjoyed it so much you're ready to return, then please join us soon for the one show where the Big Guy Himself has chosen to work directly with our casting department.
Hope to see you at the theatre!