Baltimore Center Stage
Extended through May 2, $15-$40
There are two critical takeaways from Baltimore Center Stage’s world premiere of Kelli Goff’s extraordinary virtual play, The Glorious World of Crowns, Kinks and Curls. The first, as declared in unison by the trio of performers: “Don’t ever touch a Black woman’s hair without her permission!” The second: There is great theater happening all over the country, not just in New York City, as the pandemic has introduced me to wonderful companies in California, DC, Ithaca, Texas, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Maryland, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, and other locations, where I have never had the privilege of seeing them in person.
In the ninety-minute play, filmed onstage in Baltimore without an audience, Emmy nominee, journalist, and NAACP Image Award winner Goff tackles the issue of how Black women are treated because of their hair. In a series of monologues and scenes with two or all three of the actresses, Stori Ayers, Awa Sal Secka, and Shayna Small, each portraying multiple characters, share more than a dozen stories about how their hairstyle has impacted their lives, and usually not for the better, as they are either judged negatively by others or seen as some kind of doll that can be touched, ogled, and thrown away.
The work opens with a woman auditioning for a play based on a book called Scars. “Even if you don’t have physical scars, all of us have scars that we carry with us, and within us,” she says, explaining how much she identifies with the script, implying not only the fictional one but Goff’s. “I mean, for me, I’ve mostly dealt with weight and body image stuff for years, and, well, I just know what it’s like to walk through the world and have people not see you but look right through you. And the stories in this play are fundamentally about women who want to be seen for who they are. Not dehumanized for who they are or judged for who we are or how we look. I mean they, how they look.”
After the actress explains that she would do anything, within reason, to get the part, the casting director asks, “Would it be possible for you to change your hair?” The producers want the actresses to look “as natural as possible,” but even when the woman auditioning explains that her curls are natural, the casting director adds, “You’re just so talented. I’d hate for something as silly as how you choose to wear your hair to hurt your chances. I mean, this show could change your whole life. And after all, it’s just hair.”
Seamlessly directed by Bianca LaVerne Jones and filmed and edited by Dean Radcliffe-Lynes and David Lee Roberts Jr., the vignettes that follow detail how Black women’s hair affected their job, dates, friendships, and family relationships. A mother is appalled when her daughter chops off her hair on her wedding day. A Black man running for president of the Black Graduate Student Association is furious when his Black girlfriend straightens her hair, making her seem less Black. An up-and-coming lawyer gives up a Caribbean vacation with her partner in order to be at an important meeting, but her Black woman boss is appalled that she has shown up in cornrows. A young biracial girl and her Black mother are taunted because they don’t look like parent and child. A politician refuses to make her hair an issue but acknowledges that a woman has to prepare for public appearances differently from how men do; she’s not going to worry about how she’s perceived by others just to get more votes because of her hair, although she understands that “representation does matter.”
And girls named Amaya and Claire, only their hands visible, clasped over a drawing of African symbols (which can also be seen on several props used in other scenes), speak to G-d. As they mention various objects, the items magically pop up in their hands as they talk about their hair, with a striking final twist that speaks of legacy and the future.
Ayers, Secka, and Small — who never touch one another and are always at least six feet apart — are terrific switching from role to role, each requiring significantly different clothing, makeup, accents, and hair. Jones (Armed, Feast: A Yoruba Tale) and Goff (The Birds & the Bees, Reversing Roe, Being Mary Jane) have assembled an outstanding crew of Black women, including two-time Tony-nominated set and costume designer Dede Ayite (A Soldier’s Play, Slave Play) and hair and wig designer Nikiya Mathis, whose creations run the gamut, giving each character an individuality that speaks volumes. (The sound is by Twi McCallum and lighting by Nikiya Mathis.) The set is anchored by a large, glittering, abstract hair sculpture reminiscent of the work of artist Mickalene Thomas.
The Glorious World of Crowns, Kinks and Curls is a superb example of what theater can accomplish even during a pandemic lockdown, using technology to make the most of the online nature of presentation, telling a story that is fresh and of-the-moment, particularly now that America has a Black and brown vice president, while also taking on racial, gender, and wealth inequality. It’s about personal and cultural identity, about imagery and messaging, about bigotry and racism, about love and respect, about who we are as a nation and what we can be. It’s about all of us, in 2021 and beyond. And, because of the Covid-19 health crisis, it is available to everyone to experience for ourselves, no matter where, or who, we are.