Our current production of Crowns is co-produced with African American Repertory Theatre, and directed and choreographed by Leslie Owens-Harrington. This entertaining and inspiring musical is written by acclaimed American actress, Regina Taylor.
Taylor is the sixth African American woman playwright whose work has been produced on the Barksdale and Theatre IV stages. Playing the Six Degrees of Separation game, it's interesting to discover the people (and themes) that connect us with this exemplary American theatre artist.
I first encountered and grew to admire Regina Taylor in the early 90s when she starred in the critically acclaimed TV series, I'll Fly Away. My friend (and Barksdale favorite) Joe Inscoe also appeared in that television classic, playing a Southern antagonist to Taylor's character.
Some of you may best know Taylor from her more recent TV series, The Unit. She played Molly Blane, wife of Sergeant Major Jonas Blane. Molly was the strong-willed homemaker who held all the military wives together when their fighting men were called away on active duty.
The Unit was created and executive produced by another great American playwright, David Mamet. Co-starring with Taylor in The Unit was Scott Foley, who played Sergeant First Class Bob Brown. Foley's brother-in-law is acclaimed stage and screen actor Patrick Wilson, whose father, John Wilson, starred in Barksdale's productions of The Fantasticks in 1963 and Generation in 1968.
Taylor was born in Dallas, Texas. When she was in the second grade, she moved with her mother to Muskogee, Oklahoma. Her mother was a Social Service Administration employee and transfers were common.
Having a professional mother provided inspiration to Taylor as she was growing up. "She taught me never to set limits on who I could be," Taylor states in People. "I developed an active imagination very young and was always writing plays and musicals."
Taylor's mother also encouraged a sustaining sense of pride and identity in her daughter. When she entered seventh grade, Taylor enrolled in a newly integrated school. On the first day of session, a white classmate sitting next to Taylor loudly informed the teacher, "I do not want to sit next to this nigger."
Taylor was shaken when she encountered this level of racial hatred for the first time. "I thought, 'How can she hate me when she doesn't know me?,'" Taylor states in People. Later she realized that this early encounter helped her to understand the racial prejudice to which her mother's generation had been subjected. In many ways, this understanding helped to prepare her for her career.
When the founders of Barksdale moved to Hanover from New York, they encountered for the first time the racial hatred exemplified by the Jim Crow Laws, which prohibited mixed-race audiences at any arts event. Facing possible arrest, Muriel McAuley and Pete Kilgore defiantly invited African American leaders from Virginia Union University to attend their plays in 1954, becoming the first arts organization in the state to do so. Not only did they break the law, they broke the back of that particular Jim Crow Law forever.
During her high school years, Taylor and her mother moved back to Dallas. After graduating from high school, she enrolled at Southern Methodist University. While still a student, she was cast in the 1980 TV series Nurse and 1981's made-for-television movie Crisis at Central High, playing Minnijean Brown, one of the nine black students who in 1957 risked everything to proactively effect history when they enrolled in the previously segregated Central High School in Little Rock, AR.
After college graduation, Taylor moved immediately to New York. Her big break came in 1986 when she was cast in an innovative project of the New York Shakespeare Festival - Joseph Papp, Producer. The project was called Shakespeare on Broadway for the Schools. Three Shakespearean masterworks were produced in rotating rep for reduced-price student performances: As You Like It, Macbeth, and Romeo and Juliet. John Moon, who directed Barksdale's just-closed production of Is He Dead?, was working in the casting department of the Shakespeare Festival at this time. Taylor was cast as Celia in As You Like It, the First Witch in Macbeth, and Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, becoming the first actress of color to play this iconic role on Broadway.
In 1989, Taylor received national attention for her role as the drug-addicted mother of a gifted student in the hit film Lean on Me. This led to her TV stardom playing Lilly Harper in I'll Fly Away, winning for Taylor two Emmy nominations, a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Television Drama, and an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actress in a Drama Series.
Like many acts of great intention, I'll Fly Away was not without controversy. African American film studies scholar Mary Helen Washington argued that the show focused too much on the white characters (the family headed by Sam Waterston) and too little on the character of Lilly, her family and friends. "Isn't it ironic," Washington asked, "that black people, who produced, directed, cast, and starred in the original Civil Rights Movement have become minor players in its dramatic reenactment? Isn't it tragic that after all the protests, all the freedom songs, and all the marches against white domination, black images in media are still largely controlled by whites?"
Similar arguments have been, are currently, and will continue to be leveled against Barksdale whenever we offer to work in partnership with African American Repertory Theatre and/or choose to produce black theatre ourselves. Any nonprofit theatre that follows its heart has to learn to listen to and respect such criticism, while still continuing to do its best to work proactively for the community's good.
During the period when critics like Washington were questioning the focus of I'll Fly Away, Taylor herself said this in an interview with Essence: "In terms of fully exploring a female character, I believe I have the best television role for a woman, black or white."
Caitlin Collins, a Northwestern University student who worked with Taylor during a recent residency, stated the following: "One of the ideas Regina passed onto us, which will stick with me, is the notion that others may try to label you as one thing or another, to name you, but you have the power to name yourself and to follow your own inspiration."
Billy Siegenfeld, professor of dance at Northwestern, added: "Regina Taylor lives a fiercely open-minded creative life, one that constantly questions the received wisdoms about how one should behave as well as the habits of generalization that drive people to categorize each other unjustly."
In recent years, Taylor has also become one of America's most popular playwrights. Crowns was the most performed musical in the nation in 2006. Her most recent work, Magnolia, is set during the beginning of desegregation in Atlanta in 1961. The world premiere was presented at Chicago's Goodman Theatre last year, after a development workshop in 2008 at this year's Tony Award-winning National Playwright's Conference at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center, where Phil Whiteway's nephew, Preston Whiteway, serves as Executive Director.
I hope you'll join me soon for our revival of Crowns. We're earning standing ovations at every performance, and the show is thrilling to watch, both as entertainment and inspiration.
Photo Captions (starting at the top): The set and cast of Crowns, playwright and actress Regina Taylor, Shalimar Hickman Fields as Jeanette in Crowns, Margarette Joyner as Mother Shaw in Crowns, Preston Whiteway - Executive Director of the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center.