THEATER: The Queen and Her Crowns

Dallas-born playwright, actress, and director Regina Taylor finally directs a play in her hometown. PLUS: can’t-miss performances and something spooky at WaterTower.

Growing up in West Dallas, playwright, actress, and director Regina Taylor attended Progressive Baptist Church. It sits a few blocks south of the Trinity River levees, on Westmoreland Boulevard. It is a plain, one-story, yellow-brick building with an annex on the back and a gravel parking lot. T.D. Jakes’ huge Potter’s House down on Kiest could fit the entire building several times over in its lobby. But simple as it is, the Progressive Baptist Church looks prosperous next to neighboring black churches, some of them with fading, hand-lettered signs. The skyline of Dallas looms over the levee like some inaccessible promise.

It’s difficult to believe that a few miles to the north, where playwright Doug Wright grew up, the congregation of Highland Park United Methodist Church—the president is a member—recently made a $5.5 million pledge to Habitat for Humanity, the largest such donation to Habitat in the world. Some places seem to worship a richer God.

When the Dallas Theater Center decided to produce two plays by these two hometown artists, it could not have chosen more cautiously across the I-30 divide. The spirited musical Crowns, by Taylor, opens the season. It’s about black women in the culture of church hats that Taylor knew from her childhood. Wright’s I Am My Own Wife takes the stage in March. It’s also about clothes—but with a twist. It centers on a cross-dressing, real-life gay Berliner named Charlotte von Mahlsdorf (née Lothar Berfelde), who survived both the Nazi and Communist regimes with all her wealth, in part by collaborating with the secret police.

There’s something almost excruciating about watching the DTC negotiate its potential audience. Obviously, it would love to attract both black audiences from West Dallas (the ones who don’t usually patronize the DTC) and the largely gay audiences from the nearby Oak Lawn/Cedar Springs area (the ones who usually patronize the Uptown Players or Kitchen Dog). But the DTC’s main supporters remain the Park Cities crowd, and its board of trustees is a Who’s Who of Dallas philanthropy. That’s what makes Doug Wright such a delicate choice. As openly gay as My Own Wife is, the DTC’s upscale subscribers will appreciate the fact that Wright is a Highland Park High School graduate and he won both the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play in 2004. “They liked it in New York. What else do we need to know?” To my mind, it’s a well-written but slight play, and its success is more indicative of our cultural rootlessness than anything else.

But the real question is why Dallas celebrates its own artists only after they have succeeded elsewhere. Taylor, for example, first became famous in I’ll Fly Away (1991-1993), one of the best shows ever to appear on network television. She won a Golden Globe and received two Emmy nominations for her role as Lilly Harper, the black housekeeper of a motherless white family headed by Forrest Bedford (Sam Waterston) during the Civil Rights era. Her work since then has included acting in TV series and films, writing plays, and directing. She works all over the country. She serves as one of the six members of the prestigious Goodman Artistic Collective at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. But she lives in Oak Cliff.

So why hasn’t she been working in Dallas? There are two possible answers. One is that she hasn’t been offered work here. The other is that Dallas might be home, but in terms of her real work, it’s nowhere.

Richard Hamburger, artistic director of the DTC, says that he’s offered before. “I’ve talked to her about doing roles here over the years,” he says. “And because she’s a very accomplished playwright, I’ve talked to her about other projects.”

Ironically, the real reason that Taylor wanted to direct this play in her hometown was so that her mother, Leannell Taylor, could see it.

“It’s the first time I’ve had a play of mine produced in my hometown, so that’s very special to me,” Taylor says. “And particularly with this piece. It is especially heartfelt, because I dedicated this piece to my mother, who died of cancer this year. She’d never been to the theater, and I was hoping that she would be able to see it.”

Five years ago, photographer Michael Cunningham and writer Craig Marberry put together a stunning book, an homage to women like Leannell Taylor: formal black-and-white photographs and oral histories of 52 women in hats (one for each Sunday of the year). Cunningham’s pictures illuminate a whole culture of worship.

A graduate of Pinkston High School, Taylor grew up immersed in that culture, but she never thought about it until Emily Mann, artistic director of the McCarter Theatre at Princeton, commissioned her to adapt Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats for the stage. Taylor condensed the book’s many women into six female characters, an all-purpose “Man,” an invented girl named Yolonda (a “Brooklynite homey”), and various musicians. Acclaimed at its premiere late in 2002, it has become one of the most frequently produced musicals in the country during the past year.

HEADS UP: Five years ago, photographer Michael Cunningham and writer Craig Marberry put together a book of photographs and stories of 52 women in hats (above right). Taylor (above) adapted Crowns
from the book.

“I didn’t really think about the significance of wearing hats—and I wasn’t a big hat-wearer—until I started working on this piece,” Taylor says. Her voice is careful, measured, very much contained. I’ve caught her on the phone from Los Angeles just before a rehearsal for The Unit, a new CBS series written by David Mamet about a special forces unit. “My mother was a hat-wearing woman. One afternoon, she walked me through her closet and talked about her hats. It was a wonderful bonding experience. That gave me an opportunity to look back to my roots and see this wonderful history of black women wearing hats to church. I think that goes back to Africa—adorning oneself for worship in the wearing of ritual headgear.”

In the cast list of the play, she links each character to one of the orishas (gods, spirits, sacred images) of the Yoruba people brought over with the slaves from southern Nigeria into Cuba, the West Indies, and the Americas. In the Protestant American South, the African influence survived in the music and the tradition of wearing hats.

“It is something that continues from slavery,” Taylor says. “On a Sunday morning, you would dress up your head to go to church for a few hours of freedom.” After slavery, women who had enough to live on “could put away enough money to get a hat, matching bag, matching shoes. No matter whether you were a teacher, a preacher’s wife, or a maid, you would come dressed to church.”

The stage version of Crowns combines the musical tradition with the stories that linger in those fantastic hats: “So many stories, so many memories—weddings, funerals, and other occasions—that the hats were witness to.”

The play opens with Yolonda rapping about her brother’s death. Then the music segues to drums and African call and response:

MAN: Eshe O Baba Eshe

WOMEN’S VOICES: Eshe O Baba

With Dallas actresses-singers Liz Mikel, M. Denise Lee, Vickie Washington, and Ptosha Storey in the cast, it’s going to be hard to keep the roof on the old Kalita Humphreys.

“The drum is African, starting from that,” Taylor says. “And you get the spirituals, you get the gospels, you get field hollers, you get the blues, you get hip-hop and the drums. It’s fascinating just to take African-American religious music and find that thread over time.”

But is this the play that can bring people like Leannell Taylor across the levees and into the Dallas Theater Center? Or is the joke that Octavio Solis wrote into Dreamlandia some years ago (when the DTC actually did commission a play from a native Dallasite) still going to apply? A young Latino stares out at the audience and announces with awe: “An ancient tribe of white people!”

Glenn Arbery is a senior editor at People Newspapers.

Photo: Courtesy of Regina Taylor

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Not To Miss This Month
Porkers have had other advocates. (Babe comes to mind.) But spiders? Charlotte’s Web has to stand alone in making people weep for anything with eight legs and only 514 eggs to survive her. In E.B. White’s classic, the spider in question does have the advantage of combining spelling with spinning. When Wilbur—a sensitive pig, you have to admit—faces the prospect of a bacon-and-ham future, Charlotte intervenes by stitching the words “SOME PIG” into her web and starting the process that will save him from certain death. Dallas Children’s Theater, named one of the five best in the country last year, says that Charlotte’s Web was the top pick in its audience surveys, so they’re staging it for the fourth time in their history this month. Executive artistic director Robyn Flatt directs the show, which runs through October 23 at the Rosewood Center for Family Arts (Skillman Road at Northwest Highway). 214-740-0051. www.dct.org.

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Cover Your Eyes
A scary play? Leave the kids at home for this Halloween thriller at WaterTower.

It is fitting that WaterTower Theatre should produce The Woman in Black this month.

“It’s perfect for an October time slot,” says James Lemons, WaterTower’s artistic associate. “I think it’s one of the few frightening plays I’ve seen.”

We’re all used to scary Halloween movies, in other words, but how do you make a play frightening without expensive special effects? Playwright Stephen Mallatratt’s big idea was to emphasize the theatricality instead of playing it down. He has Arthur Kipps hire an actor to help him tell about his devastating encounter with the young woman in black. On a stage, the actor shows Kipps how to create illusions, and the more he shows, the more he pulls Kipps and the audience—and ultimately himself—inside the terror of the story.

“It always amazes me, the plays that do really well are about theater,” says Lemons, who has his own twists in mind when he directs it.

But the play is also fitting because Lemons first saw it staged several years ago at Plano Repertory Theatre—which announced in August that it was closing its doors after a 29-year run. WaterTower wants to avoid its own financial horror show. Cabaret last summer had 17 actors in the cast, and all of its other productions this season have at least 11. “So we were looking for a smaller niche play that might save us a little money on the casting,” Lemons says. With only three actors, The Woman in Black economizes on everything but terror: the thrills aren’t cheap. They’ll have audiences rattled until Thanksgiving. —G.A.

The Woman in Black runs October 6-30. 972-450-6232. www.watertowertheatre.com.

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Save the Dates

Oct 13 through Nov 19
I’ll Leave It To You. After discovering the fountain of youth with Metamorphoses last summer, Theatre Three goes back to a very young Noel Coward comedy, written when he was only 20. Quadrangle, 2800 Routh St. 214-871-3300.

Oct 28 through Dec 17
Debbie Does Dallas. Susan Schwartz figured out a way to turn “the bittersweet 1978 coming-of-age story” (cough) into a musical. Who else but Kitchen Dog to do it? For mature audiences only. The MAC, 3120 McKinney Ave. 214-953-1055. www.kitchendogtheater.org.

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