Winner of the Helen Hayes Awards for Best Production, Best Musical and Best Director for Regina Taylor, Crowns returns to Twin Cities as the inaugural production of New Dawn Theatre, a new theater company led by Austene Van.
Crowns, on stage at Summit Center for Arts & Innovation, 1524 Summit Avenue, St. Paul, opened Sept. 13 and runs through Oct. 6.
The New Dawn Theatre production of Crowns stars Jevetta Steele, Thomasina Petrus, Jamecia Bennett, Aimee Bryant, T. Mychael Rambo, Marie Graham, and Valencia Proctor. Sanford Moore is the musical director. Kevin Washington is onstage as a musician and Jeff Bailey is assistant musical director.
Master artists Jevetta Steele and Thomasina Petrus, joined Van in a spirited interview for Conversations with Al McFarlane, on KFAI FM 90.3 on Tuesday, Sept. 10. Here are excerpts from the interview.
McFarlane: You are artists and entrepreneurs. You are creative people. And you are bosses. This new venture, New Dawn Theatre, is a landmark endeavor for each of you. It's a bold bid for equity, ownership, and the ability to determine and define our interests in preserving and presenting our story in our own voice.
This production is like a masterclass. Each cast member and production team member is a legend in their own right. It's wonderful that you have found a way to collaborate anew. You keep reinventing the future, reinventing possibility. You bring forth this rich legacy of creativity and of potential that represents who we are and where we are as a people.
Austene, why did you create this new project? How has it emerged as New Dawn Theatre Company?
Austene Van: It was about time for me. I've been in theater for 40 years. I first started as an actor-dancer, then choreographer. Then Lou Bellamy mentored me as a director for Black Nativity. But my grandmother when I was a little baby at five years old, would have us perform for seniors and terminally ill patients at the clinic, she founded and directed, Model Cities Health Clinic, down the hall from Penumbra Theatre.
From that I learned that we don't just do theater for ourselves. We don't just entertain for ourselves, but also for healing and growth and to spark conversation in our community, in ourselves. And so, I've always been an advocate of healing through the arts.
New Dawn was born because I have lately, even in 2019, been the first to do something and that should never be. I am the first to be in a role that's primarily for a white person. I'm the first to direct at certain spots and places as an African American woman. And that shouldn't be.
So, I decided to bring all my brilliant friends together and make a change. We've talked about it for so many years, and we understood that no one's going to hand it to us, but we are more than capable of making it, and then developing a legacy to pass down to our younger folks. We want New Dawn Theatre, not only to serve our communities, but also to be a training ground so that coming out of us, we have more directors, we have more people in education, development and marketing, while we develop our skills. That's why it was born. We make sure that we support and highlight and only produce plays by women, minorities and the LGBTQ community.
McFarlane: What went into that name “New Dawn Theatre”?
Van: I love nature and I love the Sun. I'm a sun baby but, I realized when I was going through my storage that it’s birth was because my first husband passed away of colon cancer. And while we were going through his treatment, we were looking at alternative medicines. There was a place in St. Louis called New Dawn.
For me, New Dawn is a source of healing, something to look forward to. We start anew every day. Every day is another chance to make a difference. All that the sun does to heal you, that's where New Dawn comes from. And also it made sense to me because whatever we do, even if it's a classic, there's going to be a different kind of a new bend on it, an edge. It's going to be a little different, re-imagined.
McFarlane: Jevetta Steele, would you talk about the Crowns story?
Jevetta Steele: Well, the story is about a young girl who's trying to figure out who and whose she is. it's a reflective. She's already come out of her fog, but this is an opportunity to look into how she got to where she was. In tradition of the African American family. if mama and daddy can't get it done, we turn to our elders. And so she does the same thing. The mother has sort of lost her daughter to the city and to a fast-track life in New York, and decides, after her son is killed, to send the daughter down to grandma. And Grandma is surrounded by all these other queens. They surround this child to get her back to where she needs to be, to remember who and whose she is. And there's a grand celebration at the end of it all.
The crown is such a powerful idea. It's a proper thought. The hat is cultural as well as international. If you look at the Queen Mother of England, she usually has something covering her head. The covering of our head is integral because we believe in adorning ourselves, not only for decoration but also in worship and in celebration of life and death. And so it is in this play. We have on these amazing hats. Marie Graham is a hat queen in every sense of the word, and she has been vital in making sure that we are appropriately adorned. We're going to celebrate that history.
McFarlane: Thomasina, what role do you play? What's your character in this?
Thomasina Petrus: I first saw Crowns some years ago when it was at the Guthrie. It was beautiful. This treatment has a different angle, and is so much more beautiful in a different way, particularly because of the women and the men that we have assembled for this production, were already family. How we move through the space vocally and just telling the stories, it's like we really are family.
I play one of the elders, and one of the guides for this young woman. Through stories of my own experience, I try to give her an opportunity to come into her new self.
Steele: The other piece is, you have to remember our elders all look different. We've all got that aunt that's fast-talking, fast-walking and sassy. And then we've got those who are church-going women who really try to tow the line. And then you've got those who are just as sexy and want to implant all of that, and teach her not only about being sexy but not being sexual. All of those stories come together, make us one person. It's integral that all of the advice comes from different perspectives. It rounds us out.
McFarlane:, Austene you and Jevetta were in the earlier Twin Cities presentation of this work?
Van: It was directed by Tim Bond at the Guthrie Theater and choreographed by Patdro Harris. Sanford Moore was the musical director at that time. It starred Jevetta Steele, Regina Williams, T. Mychael, Greta Oglesby, Barbara Mills and Chandra Thomas. It was very simply done as it should be on the old Guthrie stage. I knew then it was powerful because it got people on their feet that normally aren't privy to a certain type of spirituality.
They couldn't help it because we actually went in to the spirit. We allowed the spirit to be there. And so, it was life changing in a lot of different ways. I noticed then that a lot of the story actually, is also about self-possession, especially when folks of a certain culture weren't able to possess themselves in certain spots and places. Even how you dressed was dictated to you in order to assimilate or to be accepted into anyone's home to work for them.
So to be able to possess your own identity, step into it, create it from different textures of your past, to be able to say, "This is me. This is who I am." And it's from all of these disparate parts of yourselves and your ancestors and who you think you are and who you want to be.
It's almost as if the society says, "Here, try to fit that. Put this on and don't say a word and slip into the background somehow," instead of allowing you to customize your identity and accepting that. There's something interesting about Canada. I love when they say that they are mosaic. Here we say a melting pot, which is very, very different, that says you lose some of your stuff, but why would you do that? Why would you lose the music and the jazz and the colors and the food and all that stuff? It all creates America, so why lose that? We should celebrate our differences.
Petrus: I was really amazed when I first saw Crowns in the original stage production at the Guthrie. The idea of seeing strong representations of black women on stage outside of the Penumbra Theatre was really new for me. It should have been already something common. But the fact that the Guthrie was just starting to do that and has really been pushing to do that, while other theaters have been slow to do it, speaks to the fact that there is a place where we really need a theater like New Dawn.
There are lots of theaters in Minnesota. We're second only to New York. We hear that all the time. But even still with all the wonderful theater that's being done, the groundbreaking new stuff that's being written, there is still a definite space that New Dawn has created for itself, because we know there's a need. We've all been in the business here. We didn't leave and stay gone to other places because we know our community is rich.
That's what the whole point is of this theater company, New Dawn. And so we go in, we're so ready to open this show. It's so beautiful that I mean I would just sit in the back. If I wasn't in the show, I probably would have been dropping in on the rehearsals, because to hear those voices floating over that beautiful church, it's ethereal, but there's a spiritual something that's happening. We're just trying to reach people with how we tell these stories. And it's not just stuff that's been written already, it's stuff that's unwritten. So, this is the theater to be a supporter of in physical body, and giving of your resources. We need to keep this going. It's essential for our community's health and livelihood.
McFarlane: What you're proposing will turn the theater community inside out and upside down, and without any negative direction from other elements, but simply in recognition that there are discoveries that have yet to be presented and yet to be revealed, and that you have a capability, an insight, a knowledge, and a genius that allows you to both mine and deploy this information in a dramatic theatrical fashion. That's what I'm hearing as you speak. Am I on track with that?
Petrus: Well said Al.
I mean, I've been so blessed to be fortunate to work in this city and not have to think about leaving. I thought when my kids grow up and they're gone to college, then I'll have a chance to branch out and work out of state and travel. But as I think about that, my kids are gone now, I realize that I have been so fortunate that there are so many opportunities for theater here. I didn't even intentionally get into theater. I wanted to be a singer. I am a singer. But I only got into theater because I thought, "Oh, musical theater. Then I can sing. I'll still be able to dance a little bit and maybe somebody will teach me how to act a little."Thirty years later, I've built a wonderful career here. Being able to cross paths many times with my sisters here and other phenomenal actors and actresses. And even in all of the conversations that we've had in all of the green rooms and rehearsal rooms at all of the theaters we've been fortunate to work at, we've always realized there still is a place that needs to be filled, and New Dawn has come along at the right time. Any time would have been the right time, because we just need a place for these voices. These voices that are thinking about writing a play right now and haven't even done it.
Steele: New Dawn is taking the mute button away from the world. It is releasing voices that had been under a mute button for a very long time. I think for us, it also gives us a new space as performers, because what we experienced during one of our rehearsals, it was powerful. We all got into a circle, and Austene had an exercise for us to sing something that's just dear to our heart, and then say something that we're grateful for and then to pass the prayer.
McFarlane: Jevetta, your arts career is long and illustrious. The Steele family continues to deliver dynamic and impactful contributions to the world of art and culture, locally and globally.
Steele: We are transplants like you said, from Indiana. Each one of us came at different times for different reasons. I came here to go to law school. I was a student at St. Thomas, and our church, Pilgrim Baptist Church was asked to be a part of a chorus of a show called The Gospel at Colonus. My brother J.D. Steele was conducting. I had night law class and I was running late from class and missed the cue to go on stage. With books in hand, I’m standing in the wings singing along with the chorus, and little did I know the director of the show was standing behind me. He said, "Wow, you have a great voice. How would you like to go to Europe?" And I said, "Oh yes, sure. Send me a ticket and a contract." He sent me a ticket and a contract.
Steele: I started traveling with this show as they began to develop it. It was long before Morgan Freeman and Carl Lumbly and all of them came along on board. We were with a group called 14 Karat Soul. Isabel Monk O'Connor was a part of that show. I was still in school coming back and forth off the road. And finally they brought me into the school dean's office and said, "Look, you're here on full scholarship but you're not here. You have to make a decision." I sat with a young woman by the name of Kathy Beecham. I don't know if you know her.
McFarlane: Of course, I do. Her daughter Maya is one of our reporters.
Steele: Kathy Beecham, my mentor, gave me words of wisdom and said, "Jevetta, school is always going to be here. You've got to make a decision. This is an opportunity to explore. Go do it. If you ever want to come back, come back." 35, 40 years later, I'm still doing this. That show went on to go to Broadway. While on Broadway, a writer of a movie saw me singing in the show and he was also involved with the composer of Gospel of Colonus. He said to him, "Write a song for that voice for my movie," which was Bagdad Cafe.
Years went after I did the song, I'm sitting in my home pregnant and up pops Siskel and Ebert. They said, "There's a new voice nominated for an Academy Award: Jevetta Steele." Up comes my voice, and I'm thinking, "What?" And the phone began to ring off the hook. From there, the record deal and all of that. And Prince happened out of that calling. He thought I was a European artist. He comes to see Steele's Christmas show a show with Kim Basinger. She says, "Wow, you should be working with these guys."
And J.D. says, why don't you sing a little bit of your hit Song?" I'm like, "No, I don't want to sing this song. It has nothing to do with Christmas." He says, "Just sing a little bit of it." I sang a little bit of it, and Prince way up in the top pops up and he goes, "Oh my God, she's right here." I get a call and the rest is history.
McFarlane: So when you all sing and the spirit is in you, on you, do you notice it? How does it feel? And what is it telling you to do? What is it guiding you to and through? What is that moment like?
Steele: It's a surge. You can't ignore it. And it just says “forward”. It just moves you forward. I know that as artists, we're always going to experience what I would call hitches in our giddy-up. We're going to have those moments. I think that's divine as well, because then if you don't have those trouble spots, then you think you're able to do it all on your own. And then we take the God factor out of things. But when we have those hitches, it guarantees us one, a prayer life. And two, it forces us to reconnect, get back at our center, at our core, which is divine, and then move forward. And when you have that horizontal and vertical experience, that divine, it's magical. And you realize, "Oh, okay. I know who and whose I am, and I am clear, I am a spirit having a human experience and it's okay.
McFarlane: Austene, your grandmother Timothy Olivia Van, was a powerhouse, a force of nature.
Van: I get chills just thinking about it. I don't know how she did everything that she did. She was all of maybe five feet tall. Remember her little voice? "Hi Mr. McFarlane." Sweet little thing... but she was an Amazon beast dragon lady, and no one could tell her no. She didn't have to raise her voice. She just was going to do what she was going to do. And she didn't teach her children, no. She didn't teach me, no. I don't understand the word altogether. I usually ask people, "How do we do it? Don't tell me how it can't be done. How do we do it?" Because my grandmother taught me that.
She raised 10 people by herself and was still directing a clinic, and getting her kids to volunteer making bicycle safety kits, and they were on softball teams. She had a team of people, so they were on softball teams and she took them around the country to experience different cultures. I just remember her being the most fabulous thing I'd ever seen. I don't know when she slept. She owned her own house. She was able to send her kids to school all by herself. People sometimes these days faint from being a parent of one, but she had something in her, like a lot of women in her generation did, which was this intestinal fortitude and this great, great spirit. Just amazing.
McFarlane: Thomasina, what about your family? What guides you and fortifies you?
Petrus: Well, some of my really big influences in terms of performing are actually sitting in this room. The family that raised me was the Black side of my family from Mississippi. So when they came up, it was really just about survival. So I didn't know very many people in my family who were performers or singers or anything like that. And it wouldn't be actually until the last few years that I found out that some of my great aunts actually were blues singers. Particularly my aunt Cole who had a mustache and goatee. They're laughing at me.
I was a military brat and we relocated back to Minneapolis. My mother became a single mom and had to work two, three jobs. We hardly ever saw her. But she knew that we loved performing, particularly me. She knew that I was really into dancing and singing and doing all kinds of stuff. So even in junior high school and into high school, she would try to take us to things. My mother took me to Mixed Blood Theatre when I was a young teenager to see the Aretha Franklin Revue starring Jevetta Steele.
I say this all the time. I know she's heard this story a thousand times from me and other people, but when I saw her on stage, that thing you said performers give you, you feel it? I felt it. I was like, "Oh, that's what I want to do." I don't know how to get there from this little seat, but how she looks, the feeling coming off of her and the spirit coming off of her singing that way ... It just changed me. I said, "That's what I want to do. I want to be a performer like that."
I'm so glad that I get a chance to tell that story because there are little girls and boys listening to this right now. Maybe not even five, six, seven, maybe they're 17, 18, 19, maybe they're 20. But who will hear about this theater who will come to a performance where they'll see something and feel something and it will drive them to, maybe not necessarily even go into theater, but maybe some other aspect, just getting the wherewithal and the, "I can do the thing I've been wanting to do, too. Because this sister right talked about what it took to get here."
New Dawn is not just about, "Oh, we're going to rent that space in the church. We are going to go turn on the lights. You all are going to get onstage." There are so many levels to theater. Anybody who's ever planned their own wedding will know it's like a Broadway production. And that's just one small example, but the idea of putting a theater company together that is going to have a life, going to have a story and a legacy started years ago. Years ago. This dream was being born in her while we were all doing shows together. She was thinking on this and dreaming on this and praying on this.
So when it started to really happen and she started laying the groundwork, before we ever knew what play was going to be first or anything like that, I saw a different person. I saw a different sister, not just someone who went to the other cool school... Saint Paul Central, I went to North High.... not just another performer, but somebody who really was very clear about their vision and what they wanted to do. It felt bigger than anything I'd ever seen on another person that I knew so intimately. And it was awe inspiring and almost a little frightening. It was like, "Wow," she's about to step into a lion's den.
There's a bravery afforded to you to have ancestors with you, like her grandmother and her ma. She has to have those people with her in spirit saying, "Oh yeah, you're doing this." It's almost unstoppable for us. Anybody would be crazy not to recognize this powerful hurricane that she is building with this movement. I mean it's awesome to watch.
McFarlane: Something major, and something different, and something important and something necessary is unfolding as we speak, and it's unfolding in and through you and through our community in the space of art, creativity and genius.
Van: It feels like something is being birthed in all of us. It touches me when I hear company members say it's “my” company. It's us. It's all the power that's collected within us. It's not ours. It comes through us. I feel like it's an ask of God and of the universe. We can say no if we'd like to, but we said yes. We said yes to it, and so we're being provided for. There are people that need the tools, they need the agency to be empowered, to be able to stand on a platform and change our world. And we want to be that space and we're allowing that to happen. I think you're absolutely right. It's a force, it's a power that was and will be.
Steele: This is an assignment. That's the way I see it. I am a part of an assignment, and it's not only timely, it's timeless. I continue to encourage my sister sitting next to me that there is no vision without provision. I don't believe that. And so that everything that's needed for this to move forward is already in the universe. It's coming. It's happening because it's supposed to happen. The way it happens is a powerful experience for all of us and I'm so honored to be a part of it.
I thank you for taking my calls. I know that that wasn't my job. I'm a singer and actress in this show, but I want everybody to know about this.
They need to know that this is necessary, and to give voice to the future is an amazing, daunting task. But I'm excited for the journey and can't wait and I thank you for taking it with us, and our radio listening audience, come on, get on the train. You don't want to miss this ride. You want to be able to say, "I was there. I was a part of it. I was a part of the first season. I saw the first show." You want to be a part of this historical time that's happening with New Dawn Theater.
We're clear that this is not only a good idea, but this is a God idea.
Links to reviews of previous presentations of Crowns:
Synopsis from Goodman Theater, Chicago, presentation of Crowns (courtesy internet).
Crowns is a coming of age story about a 17-year-old girl. Yolanda is on a self destructive path running the mean Englewood streets of Chicago. Yolanda’s mother sends her down south to live with her Grandma Shaw after Yolanda’s brother is shot and killed. Grandma Shaw introduces Yolanda to her circle of “Hat Queens”(each woman owns at least one hundred hats). Yolanda tells her story in a mix of hip-hop and spoken word. Yolanda’s sound is mixed with gospel, jazz, blues, R&B and other idioms of the women who become a part of her life. At first, Yolanda thinks these women have nothing in common - think “Joy Luck Club” or “The Secret Life of Bees”- as this community joins together to save Yolanda’s life. Each hat holds a story of a wedding, funeral, baptism as the women share their stories of how they moved through life’s struggles. They baptize Yolanda in history/memory. Yolanda realizes she’s not alone in her feelings. The hats aren’t just a fashion statement - they are testimonies of sisterhood - they are hard earned Crowns. Besides the 73-year-old salt of the earth Mother Shaw, there is Velma, a 27-year-old mortician who has buried too many classmates; Jeannette, 35 and accused of being too flirtatious with other women’s husbands; Wanda, a 40-ish by the book school teacher and Mabel the preacher’s wife who is bigger than life and bodacious. Yolanda returns to Chicago with new eyes. She can better see where she’s from, who she is and where she’s going. Crowns has been one of the most produced musicals in the country and has played at the top regional theaters. Its first run was at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, New Jersey and transferred to a very successful run at Second Stage in New York City. This musical won Helen Hayes Awards (for Best Production, Best Musical and Best Director for Ms. Taylor).