Connected Four

A s a little girl, Mae Gibson Brown used to open a compartment at the top of her mother’s chifforobe just so she could peek at the Sunday hat stored there. “Growing up in West Virginia,” Brown recalls, “there was a lot of getting spruced up and going to church.” A woman might not have a lot of nice dresses, but “you always had a nice hat.” Sometimes, Brown remembers, the Baptist women and the Methodist women even exchanged hats because services were held less frequently then, on different Sundays.

Playwright Regina Taylor remembered those church hats, too, and the women who collected them—sometimes by the hundreds—to wear on Sundays. A photographic book titled Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats inspired her script for the “musical celebration” Crowns, now playing on Long Wharf Theatre’s main stage with a local grace note: four New Haven women are taking turns performing in one of the show’s gospel numbers.

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At the age of 80, Brown is the matriarch of the quartet. Her formidable resume of contributions to greater New Haven includes co-founding the Salt and Pepper Gospel Singers. Fellow Crowns singers Aleta Staton and Marcella Monk (as in Thelonious) Flake have known Brown since childhood and still call her Mrs. Brown or, more affectionately, Ma Brown, but never Mae. Malia West, the youngest singer of the four and the newest arrival to New Haven, is nevertheless drawn into the circle. “We do not compete with each other, but we’re here to complete each other,” Brown says.

These four talented women are full of stories and song, laughter and tears, all of which they share when we sit down together in the upstairs lounge at Long Wharf to talk about Crowns. All four have a previous connection to the theater, whether onstage or through educational programs, and all four say they were thrilled to get the call inviting them to sing.

Crowns tells the story of Yolanda, a 17-year-old from Chicago whose brother has just been murdered and who can’t find her way back from the tragedy. Her mother has sent her south to live for awhile with her grandmother, Mother Shaw, who proclaims she thought she was done raising children. But she won’t be “raising” Yolanda alone. Her friends and fellow “hat queens” from church—Jeanette, Velma, Wanda and Mabel—as well as her preacher will try to show Yolanda how to see the world and its possibilities in a new way.

“If you’re a person of color, if you grew up in church, you know these characters,” West says. Much of the story is accompanied by music: familiar gospel tunes, traditional African rhythms and a few original numbers written for the show. Brown, Flake, Staton and West, at different performances, sing the first few bars of the gospel song “How I Got Over,” originally recorded by Mahalia Jackson and later rerecorded by Aretha Franklin. Their job, Staton says, is to launch actress Shari Addison, in the role of Mother Shaw, who picks up the tune from them. “If you watch carefully,” Staton says, “she feeds off of that introduction. So the energy that you bring to the introduction is just the bed of energy for her, and she jumps off of that.”

The story of Crowns strikes a deep chord in all four of its New Haven cast members. Flake speaks of the “self-hatred” she felt as a girl. “But in church, I was important,” she says. “I was accomplished, and people rooted for me and they told me who I could be. . . This play just captures it all: the generational strife, the courage of the elders and the family who know this is the way you need to go.”

West, who was the first to perform in the show’s run, says she was impressed by the fact that the actors deliver a different performance every night. There are “so many interpretations of a phrase when it comes to music, there [are] so many ways that music comes out,” she says, “and a big part of it is about how the spirit moves you and what energy is coming to you that night.” Theater is a lot like church that way, she thinks. “I feel like this space kind of transforms into a church every time they put on the show. . . Regina Taylor took church and put it on a stage.”

Brown, Flake and West all “cut our teeth” on gospel music from a young age, as Brown puts it. She recalls the music-making of her childhood for which there was rarely a piano, just washboards, tambourines, drums, hands and feet. And voices. Staton wasn’t introduced to gospel until she went to Hillhouse High School and sang in its choir. Around that time, she remembers she heard Flake sing at a friend’s church and thought, “Wow, that girl is gifted.” Flake talks about a difficult year when she couldn’t sing after having surgery. She felt she’d lost more than her voice. “When I sang, it ministered to me,” she says. “I remember learning from my mother, I could tell when something was troubling her. She could sing, and it would bring her through. . . Man, that gospel music. There’s nothing like it.”

The power of this music does something for the crowd as well, West says. It invites “the audience to participate and to have fun and to forget the archetype of what a theater performance is and really live in the moment and enjoy [it].”

Staton starts to tell a story about an old church tradition of “lining” hymns. I ask what that means, and rather than answering, Brown sings an up-tempo, quick line of “Amazing Grace.” The others repeat the line in a full-voiced, full-harmonied response. When they get to the end, Brown feeds them the next line in song, and their voices carry one another through.

Crowns
Long Wharf Theatre – 222 Sargent Dr, New Haven
Now playing through May 13
(203) 787-4282
www.longwharf.org/crowns

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg’s associate editor. She’s also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter at KathyLeonardCzepiel.com. Her favorite New Haven scene is a packed summer concert on the Green with dinner from the food trucks, and she loves that there’s always something new to discover here.

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