By Jerome Langston
“I’ve had an affinity for Regina Taylor’s work for forever,” says Raelle Myrick-Hodges, a D.C. native who happens to be directing Virginia Stage Company’s upcoming production of the gospel musical Crowns next month. Raelle now calls New York City home, and that’s where she is, during our interview to discuss the popular, rousing musical that she’s soon to direct.
Crowns closes out Virginia Stage Company’s current 39th season. It is an interesting choice in part, due to the fact, that the gospel musical has been produced at VSC before. Considered one of the company’s most successful productions, the previous production of Crowns opened season 28 in 2006. That production was directed by Jose Zayas, and at the time broke box-office records during its run at the Wells Theatre.
Written by award-winning actress and playwright Regina Taylor, and based upon the book by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry, this new VSC production of Crowns gives Raelle the opportunity to direct her first musical. “There is a musicality to how I direct,” she says early on. “I do believe that every play is a score.”
Crowns is most certainly driven by its gospel music and surprisingly significant level of dance, but there’s also a touching story at its core. Yolanda is a 17-year-old teenager from Brooklyn, who is sent down south to stay with family, following the tragic murder of her brother. While down south she receives not only a major education in black female, church hat culture, but also discovers the power in embracing her cultural roots.
“We all need to go home sometimes, to be healed,” says Raelle. “That is the theme of the piece.” Yolanda is embraced by a circle of women who help her to eventually heal. They include Mother Shaw, who is being played in VSC’s production by actress T’Keyah Crystal Keymah, who gained fame from her popular roles on TV’s In Living Color, Cosby and That’s So Raven.
And then there’s Velma, who is being portrayed by NYC native Amma Osei, an actress/singer who is known for her work in the Broadway musical, Rock of Ages. During a separate interview with her, she explains that she starred in another production of the musical, at a very early point in her career, where she played Wanda. “I didn’t realize the weight of how important the work was,” she says. Now that she has experienced a lot more in life and has many years of success as a stage actress to her credit, Amma believes that this experience at VSC will be far different from the previous production. “I’m definitely thrilled to be able to do it again.”
In the musical, Velma is the one that delivers a powerful rendition of “His Eye is on the Sparrow.” It’s one of the many classic gospel songs that have become standards in the black church that Crowns incorporates during its two acts. Amma describes Velma as not the youngest, but still, one of Yolanda’s cool aunties.
“She probably straddles the line between being able to relate to the older crowd, as well as the younger crowd thinking she’s cool,” explains Amma. “She comes off as dainty, but she’ll come at you…if you come for her.”
Velma is one of the seven characters in the production, six of whom are women of different ages. They represent the range of black womanhood, which largely informed Raelle’s casting of this VA production. “I think that we are in a time period where it’s just as easy within one’s community to kind of self-police what is blackness,” she notes. “I thought it was important that people understand that blackness comes in shapes, and sizes and hues.”
As far as her vision for Crowns is concerned, the former Artistic Director of San Francisco’s Brava for Women in the Arts, explains that she wants to emphasize the spiritual nature of Yolanda’s journey, and its connection to African religious traditions. “I think that there’s a magical space that we get to work in, particularly because of the importance of the orishas.”
Raelle was born in Murfreesboro, North Carolina, and so while growing up in DC, she often spent summers visiting her family down south, which helps her relate to much of Yolanda’s experience adjusting to her new life in the South. “There’s an experience of understanding Yolanda’s journey,” she says.
Besides bringing that sensibility to her work as a director of this production, she’s just excited to actually direct a musical. “It is very difficult as a black female artist in America to get people to let you try a new part of your skill,” says Raelle. She appreciates the opportunity provided by VSC’s producing artistic director, Tom Quaintance, who was already familiar with Raelle’s work as a director.
“I’m excited to be working on something that has already been celebrated in Norfolk, and I hope to give it its due.”
WANT TO GO?
by Regina Taylor
Virginia Stage Company