The Feministing Five: Regina Taylor

Regina Taylor headshot, wearing black and white collared blouseRegina Taylor is a Golden Globe-winning actress and playwright, gracing film, television and theater. Originally from Dallas, Texas, Taylor started writing at the young age of five. She continued writing throughout college until she took an acting class and got bit by the actor’s bug.

Most television audiences may recognize Taylor from her role as Lilly Harper in I’ll Fly Away, for which she won a Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actress in a TV Series, among numerous other awards including two Emmy nominations. Taylor’s most recent work on television was in the CBS hit drama The Unit. Taylor has been a trailblazer throughout her career, cast as the first black woman to play Juliet in William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and playing Anita Hill in the movie Strange Justice.

Taylor’s playwright credits include Oo-Bla-Dee, Drowning Crow, The Dreams of Sarah Breedlove, A Night in Tunisia, Escape from Paradise, Watermelon Rinds, Inside the Belly of the Beast and Crowns. In 2006, Crowns was the most performed musical in the country. To celebrate its 10th anniversary, Taylor has come back on to direct her hit musical.

I got the chance to talk with Taylor about what inspires her, what it was like playing Anita Hill, the long history of African-American women wearing hats for worship (the concept behind the Crowns musical), and her own relationship to this tradition.

And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five, with Regina Taylor!

Anna Sterling: What inspires you in all the realms of work that you do?

Regina Taylor: The questions that I have. A lot of times you have been named before you’re even born. In the world that I live in, in writing and creating, it’s empowering to be able to create your own name. [To] question everything one might assume you know is part of that writing process. A lot of the times we move through the world thinking that we know the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. If we question the ground that we stand on, we might come up with very interesting approaches to the answers. Unexpected answers.

AS: Tell me about the concept behind Crowns.

RT: Crowns is a picture book, a table top book about African-American women and the tradition of wearing hats to church. Emily Mann, who is the artistic  director at McCarter Theatre, asked me if I’d be interested in creating this into a theatrical piece from this book. I saw these women and I was like, wow, I recognize all these women although I never met them–their faces, their stories. And I was like, yes, I’d love to take on this challenge. I’m not a big hat-wearer so I started tracking this tradition of hat-wearing to church for African American women. It took me back over the ocean. Adoring oneself for worship–it’s very much a part of our roots and culture that survived over the ocean through slavery. After slavery, when you had a job that paid you enough to get that hat, matching bag and shoes, you wanted to express how you wanted to be seen. It was very much about the individual spirit and the uniqueness of that expression.

When I was doing the research [for Crowns],  I was at home one day visiting my mother and she took me to her closet. She showed me her hats and she told me the stories of her hats. Each hat had a story about a wedding, a funeral, markers in her life, and I went, oh, it’s about all of these memories cupped under the brim which collectively is the body of the wearer. I learned so much about my mother in that day. The first opening at the McCarter Theatre, I bought my first real hat which was a big brimmed hat with feathers that moved when I moved. That [hat] became the hat I wore to my mother’s funeral so it started collecting stories of my life. What my mother gave me on that afternoon and walking through her hats and sharing those stories, that was passed down to me in terms of how I approached the work of this play. The piece is about what we collect in terms of a life, what we pass down, and how the next generation uses it.

AS: What has it been like coming back to direct Crowns after ten years in production?

RT: I am enjoying it very much. I put it down after a while and it has a life of it’s own. It continues to run very strong across the country. I moved to Chicago this past year. I wanted to embrace the city in terms of perspective in coming back to this piece. The piece is about this young woman, 17-year-old Yolanda. Running the streets, her brother is shot. Her mother sends her down south to live with her grandmother and try to reclaim her life. She’s introduced to this circle of hat queens, her grandmother’s friends, and they start telling their tales of what they’ve had to overcome in terms of life so the young woman doesn’t feel she’s alone. That gives her courage to move forward in her life knowing that these wonderful spirits will continue to be with her.

With this, I’ve been looking at the city of Chicago. Before the character was from Brooklyn. Now, she’s from Englewood here in Chicago, which has a good deal of gang violence and one of the highest rates of murder in the country. You want theaters to have an influence on community. I wanted dialogues happening across the city with this piece, so I’m working with various organizations. One being Louder Than A Bomb, which is a spoken word group here in town. [I'm] working with [the] young ladies on the Yolanda Project, having them look at the piece and look at Yolanda through their eyes and creating these spoken word pieces. [I'm] working at Columbia College to dance workshop with the students there, working with the DuSable musem, the MCA [Museum of Contemporary Art], different independent organizations throughout the city is part of that revisiting the piece.

AS: How did Anita Hill‘s testimony affect you and what was it like playing her in Strange Justice?

RT: The trial was invigorating in that it sparked dialogue about things that people at that point were afraid to talk about. I thought whatever the outcome, it was a breakthrough in terms of women finding some courage to speak the truth. I found it fascinating to play her. You come at it cautiously in playing a real life character. I submerged myself in whatever there was in the media about her and to truly create something that had layers to speak about this woman. Again, with a real life character you only know so much about who they are. You can’t say that “I am her,” but I wanted to create a character that did some justice to her.

AS: Who is your favorite fictional heroine and who are your heroines in real life?

RT: I like heroines who are smart, feisty, tenacious, willful and strong. I like those who have some flaws that let you know that they’re human and yet they’re always challenged by their humanness.

My real life heroes started very close. My mother and grandmother. My heroes in terms of writing [are] Toni Morrison [and] Alice Walker. They’re too many people to name when I think of women I admire.

AS: You’re going to a desert island and get to take one drink, one food and one feminist. What do you pick?

RT: Do they have any lemons on the island? I’d go with iced tea with a lemon. I’d go with either a chicken or an egg. The chicken could provide the egg or vice versa. I’d go with Ameena Matthews.

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