Late in Regina Taylor’s Crowns, the character of Yolanda, a young woman struggling to understand who she is and where she came from, tells us, “The more I study Africa, the more I see that African Americans do very African things without ever knowing it.” Crowns is filled with these “African things”—from the music and movement that infuses the show, to the values and beliefs that its characters uphold and, of course, to the elaborate hats that give the musical its title.
Many cultures and religions have a tradition of covering the head. In Africa, the earliest evidence of headwear is found in Algeria and dates to the Neolithic period, between 11,000 and 3,000 BCE. Among the images etched onto the rocky walls of various prehistoric sites are depictions of archers and dancers wearing feathers, animal skins and horns on their heads. In sub-Saharan Africa, what one wears on one’s head communicates important information about gender, age, status in society, membership in an association, rank in an organization or affiliation with a deity. headwear also has a strong spiritual significance: for the Yoruba peoples of southwestern Nigeria and the Republic of Benin, the head is considered the point through which the soul enters the human body. The Yoruba also believe that the physical head (ori ode) is no more than the outer shell of an inner, invisible head known as the ori inu, which is associated with personal destiny.
The most elaborate headwear is usually reserved for leadership—political or religious leaders and the social elites—while the lowest-ranking individuals on the social ladder may be denied the right to wear anything at all on their heads. For the African American women in Crowns, whose ancestors survived the Middle Passage and slavery, the act of wearing an elaborately decorated hat connects them to their African roots while simultaneously asserting their socioeconomic status here in America. As Wanda, one of the women in the play, tells us, “In my mother’s day, hats were a sign of status for black women. Once you got up on your feet and started working, you bought yourself a hat.”
The reasons for wearing a hat, as we discover in Crowns, are as myriad as the hats themselves. But while the “hat queens” in the play may at times be driven by fashion, vanity or a desire to assert status, hat wearing is also a spiritual act—inextricably linked to worshipping God. As Wanda tells us, “When I get dressed to go to church, I’m going to meet the King, so I must look my best.” Two of the North Carolina churches described in the play—the Church of God in Christ and the holy Trinity Church—are part of the Pentecostal movement. Pentecostalism is a charismatic religious movement that emerged in America at the turn of the twentieth century. The name is derived from the New Testament book The Acts of the Apostles, where on the Day of Pentecost the holy Spirit descends on the followers of Christ, giving them spiritual gifts including the gifts of healing, prophecy and speaking in tongues. African American Pentecostalists trace their origins to the Azusa Street Revival, a Pentecostal revival meeting founded in Los Angeles in 1906 by African American preacher William Joseph Seymour. But many of the rituals, practices and beliefs associated with African American Pentecostalism can trace their roots further back to traditional African spirituality. In Black Fire: One Hundred Years of African American Pentecostalism, author Estrelda Y. Alexander notes, “Pentecostalism… is as African as choral music and dance. Prayers for healing, speaking in tongues, and similar phenomena were a part of many traditional African religions long before the arrival of European missionaries.” One such tradition is the “ring shout,” an ecstatic dance most closely associated with the Gullah people of the South Carolina and Georgia Sea Islands. Recreated in Crowns, the ring shout is a fusion of counterclockwise dancelike movement, call-and-response singing and percussive hand clapping and stick beating, and is clearly African in its origins.
The music in the play—which moves through time from field hollers to spirituals to blues, jazz and gospel to contemporary hip-hop—provides a snapshot of the remarkable contribution African Americans have made to the history of music in the United States, while also demonstrating how those musical forms can trace their roots back to African musical and cultural traditions. The field holler is perhaps the earliest form of African American music, originating in the early days of slavery. A kind of work song, it was used as a form of communication among black plantation workers in the South, and made use of call and response. In sub-Saharan Africa, call and response is linked not only to vocal and instrumental music, but is also a pervasive pattern of democratic participation—in public gatherings in the discussion of civic affairs and in religious rituals. Spirituals, made famous by African Americans in the South, also made use of call and response. As Taylor points out, “Spirituals were African tunes that were married to the poetry of the Bible, making them African American.” The blues, which was born in the Mississippi Delta during the Civil War, also built on these same influences, but in this case the call-and-response pattern was between a singer and a guitar. Beginning in the late 1800s, jazz grew out of a combination of influences, including African American music, African rhythms, American band traditions and instruments, and European harmonies and forms. Black gospel music emerged during the “great migration” as more and more southern blacks moved to urban centers in the North and South after World War I. Chicago is the city most strongly associated with the development of black gospel. According to author Walter D. Best in his book Passionately Human, No Less Divine: Religion and Culture in Black Chicago, 1915-1952, “Black gospel is… deeply influenced by the cadences of the South and southern religion, but it was born in the city and its core reflects urbanization and modern life.” Finally, rap and hip-hop, the most contemporary form Taylor draws on in Crowns, is also deeply rooted in African oral tradition, in particular the Griots and Griottes of West Africa—who are storytellers, poets, praise singers and keepers of community history.
The other perhaps less obvious connection between Crowns and African cultural traditions is the importance placed on one generation passing down knowledge to the next. In Crowns, the teenaged Yolanda travels down South to live with her grandmother and learn about life through her grandmother’s eyes. This journey is what allows her to move forward in her own life. As religious studies scholar Robert Baum outlines in his entry on West African religions in the Encyclopedia of African and African American Religions, intergenerational dialogue is critical in West Africa, as religious thought is often expressed as much through recitation of oral traditions and informal discussions between elders and young people as it is through ceremonies and rituals. Many West African religions also worship the spirits of ancestors. Not everyone can become an ancestor—among the Yoruba and Diola, only people who led benevolent lives become ancestors. They then remain linked to their living descendants, able to offer them advice and assistance by appearing to them in dreams and visions.