Crowns was one of the highlights of the Straz Center’s 2021-2022 season. Playwright Regina Taylor’s musical celebration of the proud and faithful women of the African-American church was such a hit with Straz audiences that it’s returning to the Jaeb in a new, intimate presentation.
Tampa playwright-poet-stand-up comic-etc. R.M. Lawrence, better known as “ranney,” will direct the reworked play. “ranney” is familiar with the material – he played the sole male character (ID’d in the script as “Man”) in a 2006 production of Crowns. And he grew up in the church.
“Church was part of the equation,” he said. “We went several times a week.”
“Ranney” grew up in Winter Park, one of nine children of parents who were leaders in their Pentecostal Church. He’s very familiar with the culture of hats and their importance in the church, central themes of Crowns.
“In the African-American church, women in hats was a huge part of the show,” “ranney” said. “It’s a celebration of femininity and womanhood.”
His mother, though, was not one of the hat ladies.
“She was a cosmetologist, so her own head was her advertisement,” he explained.
There were plenty of other women in the church, including “ranney’s” aunts, who carried on the hat tradition.
“It was so much about occasion and ritual,” “he said. “You dressed a certain way for a wedding, Well, church was that way too. You dressed a certain way and there’s a little bit of flaunting and showing off with it, but there’s also a bit of showing respect and pride and tribute.”
Those hats were not to be trifled with, either.
“Whether it was your own house or you were visiting a friend’s house, you knew if you recognized a hat box, you knew not to mess with it. Those hats didn’t just lie around the house randomly,” “ranney” said.
Those hats and the stories behind them will be brought into particularly sharp relief in this new take on Crowns.
The simpler staging won’t lessen the play’s impact, he said.
“The presentation will focus on the hats and the stories. Music, projections and lighting will accentuate a spoken word-centered production.
“It scales down the production but doesn’t scale down the punch,” “ranney” said.
The show’s director believes the spare setting will help emphasize some other important elements of the play.
“I think there would be a tendency to lock in more strongly on the audible traits of it being a gospel review,” “ranney” said. “As far as the message of unity and legacy, I think the stripped-down production allows us to be more poignant about those moments in the show where there’s a nice and sweet message to pass along.”
The show can be both entertaining and enlightening, he believes.
“I hope people come and just have a great time and the great time that’s had sparks various conversations as they walk out to the parking lot and go back into their lives.”
“I’m not a terribly imposing moralist, but I do hope the messages in the show about community, family and love accentuated,” “ranney” said. “Hopefully, we can be a reminder to people to engage in those aspects of their lives more thoroughly.”