Review: The Glorious World of Crowns, Kinks and Curls at The Arts Factory
By Perry Tannenbaum
If you weren’t aware that Black women have a special relationship with their hair, Keli Goff’s THE GLORIOUS WORLD OF CROWNS, KINKS AND CURLS, now premiering at The Arts Factory, will set you straight. Although a streamed three-woman version of the show produced by Baltimore Center Stage aired in 2021, Three Bone Theatre is currently performing the first live production – with a six-woman cast.
Doubling the cast turns out to be a wise decision by director Tina Kelly, enabling costume designer Toi A. Reynolds Johnson and hair designer Blue Edmonds to show off more of their work, while allowing the sextet of actors to concentrate on their performances instead of how to manage frenetic backstage changes. With 20 different monologues, sketches, and rhymed rants along the way, there’s still plenty of material to go around.
Maybe Kelly and her artistic team decided to add players during the rehearsal process, for the distribution of acting chores certainly isn’t even – and the script came into their hands without the logistics of staging the show having ever been worked out in live performance. The impact of a larger cast performing for a live audience might also be a revelation for Goff when she comes down to the Queen City this coming weekend to witness Three Bone’s handiwork.
More heads of hair onstage seemed to add weight – maybe even universality – to their cumulative testimony, and the audience reaction layered on at the Sunday matinee I saw made their words gospel. Short of outright amens, there were a variety of audible affirmations.
Anxiety over black women’s hair seems to crop up most impactfully in the workplace, where long-ingrained attitudes and prejudices can affect hiring, performance evaluations, and advancement. Ashleigh Gilliam seems to get off to a wobbly start as she welcomes the audience to an experience beyond theatre, where we can hope to encounter humorous and engaging therapists, feel like we’ve met up with old friends, or maybe make new ones.
But there’s a finely calibrated stage fright in Gilliam’s delivery that had me worrying, until Goff had Gilliam flipping the script with a bit of sleight-of-hand. It turned out that her character was auditioning for her role. Then an unseen casting director makes it quite clear that the role will not be going Gilliam’s way – unless she does something with her hair to make it more “ladylike.”
While I knew that racism was ubiquitous, centuries old, and ongoing, it was revelatory for me to learn that all Black women – no matter what kind of hair they have or how much, whether they are rich or poor – have a story to tell about their “crown and glory.” Even more stunning, as three specific stories began the cavalcade of testimonies, all three women before us had stories of people who had the nerve to reach out, without permission, to touch their hair.
At work. On a date. On a yacht.
Recalling the horror, they reached out toward us in unison: “The hand!” “The hand!” “The hand!” The lady executive, the hip-hop producer, and the plutocrat yachtswoman were all the same. Rude, insensitive, and invasive.
“Don’t ever touch a black woman’s hair without her permission,” they finish in unison. By leaving out seven exclamation points and over 140 capital letters from Goff’s playscript, I don’t think I’m exaggerating her emphasis. But to the Sunday matinee crowd’s credit, there was a healthy amount of laughter mixed in with the affirmations as these horror stories climaxed and the lights went out.
The slights don’t all come from white people. In the ensuing monologue, “Dear God, It’s Me, Amaya,” the little girl has been told by a Black classmate that her hair is nappy. She prays for pretty hair for her eighth birthday. Dressed in purest white for her wedding, it’s Gabrielle in the next sketch who is still hearing her mom’s outrage and weeping – because she has opted for short hair – as she tells us her story.
Aside from cataloging the slings, slights, and chemicals that have assailed Black women’s hair over the years, Goff also creates an arc of progress and a hopeful outlook, fortified by her humor. Here we can fault Kelly and projection designer Will Jenkins for not including the date markers that the script calls for, blurring Goff’s somewhat faint timeline. Nor are Kelly and Gilliam quite helpful enough in cementing the full connection between Goff’s first scene and her last.
But there are also detours in between, like the prerecorded segment that informs us that Black moms often experience post-partum hair loss. An extended scene at a DC beauty parlor, “The Ball.” goes slack and loses its comical edge long before Goff attempts to rescue it with a notable historical context that grounds us in 2009. These are missteps that a playwright will notice more readily when she watches her work alongside a live audience. Goff’s visit may very well provide her with the first opportunity she’s had to remediate CROWNS, KINKS AND CURLS with that kind of precious feedback.
She will definitely enjoy the Three Bone ensemble. Only Vanessa Robinson has performed at The Arts Factory before as the down-to-earth social worker in Three Bones’ Andy and the Orphans back in February. Here she delivers impressively as a rape victim preparing to testify in “Chantal’s Fierce Magic.” Among various roles, Michelle Washington shines most memorably as Amaya in her debut, while Cailin Harrison is alternately poignant and adorable as Gabrielle, the conflicted bride.
Dior Scott had one of the juiciest monologues in her debut, resplendently dressed for “Adaora and Her Little Princess,” perhaps Goff’s best segment. Yet Scott was a force to be reckoned with in multiple ensemble pieces, such as the “Don’t Touch!” freak-out and her confrontation with Washington in “Office Politics.” Ka’Shara Hall was stateliest as the Congresswoman in the “Pauline on When Hair Gets Political” monologue, but her give-and-take with Scott on “It’s Just Hair” crackled with vivacity, making Goff’s rhyming easier to swallow.
Goff plans to linger after the next Sunday matinee for a talkback. It will be interesting to hear her reactions to the live performance – and maybe find out if she’s having second thoughts about Adaora’s adoration of Meghan Markle.