Georgia College’s Department of Theatre and Dance’s newest production is bringing a church-like atmosphere coupled with an important life journey focusing on identity to the Russell Auditorium stage.
Audience members are not only encouraged to get up and sing along with the numbers in the gospel/hip-hop musical “Crowns,” they are expected to. With well-known songs like “His Eye Is On the Sparrow” and “When the Saints Go Marching In” featured, it’s fairly easy to understand why. The show is scheduled to hit the stage Wednesday through Sunday, and is appropriate for those ages 5 and up.
According to “Crowns” co-director Dr. Amy Pinney, this will be the first African-American musical produced by Georgia College on the Russell Auditorium. The play was chosen to coincide with the 50th anniversary of GC’s first African-American graduate Celestine Hill as well as Black History Month.
“Crowns” follows protagonist Yolanda, a young black woman from Brooklyn, New York who after her brother dies by gunshot is forced to live with her grandmother in South Carolina. Yolanda’s grandmother and her church friends, armed with a wealth of knowledge about black heritage and culture as well as many embellished hats (crowns), begin teaching the young lady who she is to help her find her place in the world.
“She learns a lot about her African heritage via the process of getting to know these ladies from her grandmother’s church,” said Deitrah Taylor, the show’s dramaturg. “Each of the ladies embodies an Orisha, which is an African tribe pantheon of gods and goddesses. Each one represents an aspect of nature, and they come together to heal our protagonist Yolanda.”
In the theatre realm, a dramaturg is someone who researches historical information and interprets its context for a production, and there is a lot of history, heritage, and culture that ties into “Crowns.” The play’s setting of Darlington, S.C. is located in what’s known as the Gullah Geechee corridor that stretches from North Carolina to Florida. The Gullah Geechee people are African-Americans spread throughout the area that have their own language based in African roots. Taylor will be giving a “talkback” at 12:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Campus Blackbox Theatre where she will contextualize the show for anyone interested in attending.
Throughout the play, Yolanda’s Orishas take her to many worlds and timelines past and present so she can learn more about herself and her ancestors. With 23 musical numbers spread throughout, many of them based in religion, the audience is taken on the journey right along with Yolanda in the 90-minute production.
“The play is a church service writ large,” Dr. Pinney said. “We start with a morning service, you see a wedding, a funeral, a baptism, and a benediction.”
The cast of “Crowns” is relatively small at only seven members, and only one of them is male although that male plays multiple parts. Homer Jones has that role and gave the reason why “Crowns” was a timely selection for GC Theatre.
“With Georgia College being predominantly a white institution it is very important to do a show that really showcases the lives of the minority, but specifically the black women on campus. We have several programs that highlight black men, but not enough programs and opportunities to highlight the black women on campus.
“That internal conflict that you see is what a lot of young black women face in today’s generation. What makes it so exciting is we’re able to use that struggle and reveal what it is so hopefully we can reach out to other young black women who are struggling with the same things Yolanda is and tell them that it’s OK to feel angry and understand that they’re in pain. But the Orishas provide a support system for her all the way. They know they have the power to uplift her, but it’s up to Yolanda to accept that. When she does, it is a beautiful sight to see towards the end of the musical.”
While the play does take the audience through a lot of struggles, GC’s artistic chair of theatre and dance Dr. Karen Berman assures that attendees will leave feeling, “uplifted, joyful, and full of love.”
Tickets to “Crowns” may be purchased in advance online at www.gcsutickets.com. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday with a 2 p.m. matinee slated for Sunday. General admission tickets are $16 and senior citizens, GC faculty/staff, and non-GC students can get in for $12. GC Theatre is also offering a group rate of $7 for church groups or community organizations interested in attending. For group rate ticket purchasing, call 478-445-1980.