I grew up on 80th and Constance in Chicago’s Jeffrey Manor neighborhood. My maternal grandparents lived less than a mile away on 75th and Jeffrey. They owned the apartment building next door to this huge eyesore of a flower store. (The flower store is gone now, but if you ever saw it, you know the one). When I was little, my mother wasn't a good cook so practically every day she took me and my sister to her parent’s house for dinner. My grandmother was a fantastic cook. Looking back, I don't remember what my father ate for dinner, but that wasn't my concern. My sister and I ate well at my grandparent’s house and spent so much time there that it truly was our second home. We loved it and them beyond measure, but the food…oh the food. My grandmother always had fresh brewed tea (served hot or cold), jell-o, Pepperidge Farm sugar cookies, and home cooked meals. I still remember she made the best spaghetti. We ate dinner there at least 3 or 4 times a week. During winter break, my sister and I would walk over to spend the day. That fifteen-minute walk would take us over an hour because we stopped to have snowball fights along the way. When we finally arrived, my grandmother would be standing on the porch anxiously waiting for us. But my favorite time was every Sunday morning when three generations of ladies would go to church together.
We faithfully attended Ingleside Whitfield Methodist Church on east 72nd Street. I crisply remember every Sunday getting dressed in our finest clothes, saying goodbye to my father, who never came with us, and driving to my grandmother's house in our beat up blue Hornet car (which my grandmother gave to my mother). My grandfather, who affectionately called us “boogers”, would be in his den watching sports. We’d kiss and hug him and he was always happy to see us. Like my father, he didn't come to church with us either. Then my sister and I would adorn ourselves with a choice selection from my grandmother's vast array of colognes, play in her jewelry, and retrieve our treats of Freedent gum (which I didn't realize with denture gum) and mints from her candy dish before heading off to church.
My sister and I always fell asleep during service but my mother and grandmother usually didn't mind. (It was better than my sister and I arguing through the entire service.) They let us lean our heads on them while the minister gave the good word. After service we had to wait forever as my grandmother spoke to everyone (something I inherited from her) and beamed with pride reciting the latest accomplishment of her beautiful and smart granddaughters. Then we drove to Ultra Foods in Indiana to grocery shop in the land of no taxes on food, double coupons, and bagging your own groceries. I loved playing grocery store bagger. I think because it appealed to my love of organization.
In 1986, my grandparents retired and moved to California. I have a horrible memory when it comes to numbers and dates but that year is a number that is imprinted in my memory as one of the saddest events that occurred in my childhood. It was devastating to go from seeing my grandparents almost every day to choppy long-distance phone calls, handwritten notes, and summertime reunions.
All these memories came flooding back to me last night as I watched Regina Taylor’s “Crowns” at the Goodman Theatre. Actually, they didn't come flooding back because they are always present and significant to me every day. But seated next to my mother in the theater, the story, the characters, and the messages reminded me how important it is to have elders in your life to give you roots and a strong sense of self.
As soon as I sat down in the theater, I was in awe at the simple beauty of the set. The alabaster brick wall, the words enscribed in the frame encasing the stage, and block steps which transported you to a southern porch and then to a lively church. The action began right away when an African prince and princess entered from the audience. Next, we see the main character of Yolanda who is a young girl from the depressed and crime-ridden Englewood neighborhood whose brother has been murdered. She is a girl of the streets and her mother, fearing for her life, sends her down south to Darlington to stay with her grandmother. Immediately the juxtaposition of African and Southern heritage with Yolanda's modern state stuck me as a wonderful blending of old and new. The grandmother and her “Hat Queen” friends were all clothed in simple white dresses which contrasted sharply to Yolanda’s bright green jacket, studded rhinestone shoulder pads, baggy jeans, and red cap. Yolanda clearly doesn’t fit in here. She is a square peg jammed into a round hole. She dances to her own beat and rhythm, but her frantic, jarring movements underscore a sense of desperation.
The hat queens embrace Yolanda through song, tradition, faith, and family. They use the stories of hat acquired, adored, and scorned to communicate their losses and heartaches. They understand Yolanda though she does not understand or appreciate them. The play skillfully progresses through a series of vignettes, stories, dances, and movements until Yolanda is finally ready to accept the knowledge and love that they have to give her. Listening to the hat queens was like listening to my Granny. I laughed out loud when they said ”Put something on your head.” I can’t remember how many times Granny chastised me for trying to leave the house without “something on my head”. Yolanda asks her grandmother why she has to be there and how long? Her grandmother responds “No questions. That's the way it's always been done.” I could hear my Granny telling me “Do as I say, not as I do” or that “Children should be seen and not heard”. My grandmother was Old School. One hat queen preaches on appropriate dress and not wearing your club clothes to church. Oh, Granny would have had a field day with that one.
My favorite part was the ring shout. Right before the play opened, I had the privilege to interviewing Regina Taylor for an article that ran in N’digo. She described the ring shout as a “counter-clockwise movement dance from the Gullah Islands which is absolutely tied to tribal African dance. We juxtapose and compare that movement to the Charleston, Lindy Hop, and Krumping. They all overlap on the stage and make those connections from the past to the present.” From her description, I knew I would love it. But seeing it, I was transfixed. At this point in the play Yolanda has her first turning point.
In “Crowns”, we learn that hats are heirlooms like fine china or crystal. They should be passed down to pass down the stories and lessons of our ancestors. So the time that a little girl spent with her sister, mother, and grandmother every Sunday in church; that time was an important rite of passage. Watching “Crowns” with my mother, I was reminded how lucky I am that in my formative years I had the privilege of spending every Sunday ensconced in the love of three generations of women. “Crowns” is a celebration of sisterhood, African heritage, and finding the good in every thing that life throws at you. It closes this week on August 12th, at the Goodman Theatre. There are still tickets available. Don’t miss it!
Deanna Burrell is the author of the dynamic novel “Single Girl Summer.” Described as the healthy, bouncing baby that would be produced if “Waiting to Exhale” and “Sex and the City” procreated, Single Girl Summer is available in paperback and ebook download. Visit www.SingleGirlSummer.com for more information. Your summer won't be complete without it!