Thursday, 7 November 2013

CROWNING GLORY - A Review & Character Breakdown

 (Vote for Crowning Glory as Best New Play >>Here<<)

If you haven't yet been to see the play Crowning Glory, I'm going to be blunt - you need to! There's so much to say about this play that I almost don't know where to begin, but I do know that every time I run the play through in my mind, I'm filled with amazement and gratitude for it's Writer Somalia Seaton. In simple terms, Crowning Glory is a play about Black women and our relationship with our hair, but actually it's so much more. I'm amazed at Seaton's ability to address so many potent issues in just an hour and a half.
 The format takes on a series of monologues performed by an all female cast, with the occasional pre-recorded video skit or interview with the public.
What I love most about the play is how loudly and clearly the Black British voice is projected. When it comes to the subject of natural hair, or shedding a spot light on Black women in general, the African American woman pretty much dominates the stage, and the rest of us tend to take our que from there. But not in Crowning Glory. This is our play and these are our voices, sharing our experiences. Let's be honest, growing up I never used the words "Nappy, Cornrow, or even Braid" and neither did anyone around me. We said "Picky, Canerow, and Plait". I love the fact the Seaton has held tight to this level of detail in her writing. In a play that intends to address under-representation, she makes women like me feel represented throughout.
I've seen the play a total of 3 times and each performance has been brilliant. It's clear that each and every member of the cast recognises the importance of the story they're telling. They're aware that they are handling sensitive subject matter. They're aware that in that moment, they have the huge responsibility of being the mouthpiece for the majority of women in the audience; they're aware that they are effectively the translators for every non-black, non-female person watching. They're aware of just how big a responsibility it is to deliver these truths.
Seaton's writing and the performances are so sincere, that although the play is packed with humour, it is also very, very uncomfortable in many places. Many of character names alone are so shamefully familiar including, Pickyead, Bounty, and Halfbreed.

Maybe part of the reason I loved it so much was because I could recognise myself in a little bit of most characters, which is another impressive achievement by Seaton. Her characters express a wide range of opinions, experiences and view points. All the characters addressed a number of issues, that could lead to hundreds of further discussions, so I couldn't resist doing a mini breakdown of what I thought about each of them.
Hair Comb
Through Hair Comb's character we're able to hear the kind of vocabulary commonly used by Caribbean parents of a particular generation. For me it highlighted the role played by parents and older generations in forming our attitudes toward our hair, and how unaware many parents have been of the negativity they can pass on by treating their children's hair like it's a problem.
The Pickyead character was probably a bit too real, and a bit too uncomfortable for some people, which is exactly why I thought she was brilliant. That crushing moment when you're publicly rejected from the realms of beauty. It's not as simple as a broken-heart. It's a broken you! You aren't pretty, you aren't good enough, and you never will be; at least not while you look like you! With that in mind Picky-ead asks what's the big deal about buying someone else's hair? If you can purchase symbolic beauty and be included as aesthetically acceptable, why not? Furthermore, White women now straighten their hair and wear weaves too, "so what's the big deal?"
Bounty is a character that certain people I know, would love to hate. What is it about a well spoken Black person that stops them from being Black and somehow makes them White? 
Bounty is most definitely a snob, but she's also a person with a valid point, highlighting some of the shameful and dangerous stereotypes that some Black people place upon themselves, and sadly perpetuate. Bounty takes a minute to question how restrictive and ridiculous these ideas of "real" can be, as she's challenged by the weave wearers and bleaching cream users. Even in the case of relationships, Bounty asks why is it such an issue when an interracial relationship involves a Black woman with a White man, as opposed to vice versa? "Is it not in fact true..." she argues "...that more of of your type of man date outside their race than any other race of man, and yet you so desperately attempt to hold on to him?... Why is it ok for men to do it but not for us?" She also addresses how White men have been more embracing of her natural hair than Black people; a situation that I'm definitely familiar with. 

In contrast to Bounty's experience with White partners, we're introduced to Halfbreed, a Mixed Race woman on a date with a White man. Unlike Bounty, Halfbreed tries to explain why her date's ridiculous question about her hair, (along with a few other dumbass statements), leaves her feeling exoticised. As though the date wasn't about getting to know her, but rather about satisfying a curiosity for the forbidden "other". I felt Halfbreed was a very powerful and important character because she expressed a voice less heard and an experience that is not as often discussed. At first I thought a lot of the things Halfbreed spoke about were scenarios that were unfamiliar to me, until I reflected on friends I grew up with. How many felt they had to choose whether they wanted to be White or Black, but experienced rejection from both. Things get really blunt when Halfbreed starts asking what her mixed-race appearance, hair & all, says to the world; how preconceived ideas about "easy White women" and absent Black men are far from uncommon.
Although I cant decide on a favourite character, I did absolutely love Token. Token is played by the only White member of the cast and brilliantly embodies the sometimes awkward, sometimes unfortunate, and sometimes infuriating line that some people sometimes cross.
At this point if I had one criticism of the play, I'd say maybe it would've been nice to have one other representation of white women, maybe the mother of a Mixed race child, would've have provided another interesting and informative perspective; but I suppose that would defeat the object of Token being a "token". So I guess I'm back to my original position, where I wouldn't change a thing. 
Token's character is important because she represents both ignorance and innocence. She's that person who says the stuff that makes you mad, but has no idea of the offence caused. Her outrageous stupidity provides great humour, but again touches on a very serious subject that I've recently been struggling with a lot. How do you correct someone's unintentional racism? A racism that they fail to recognise because to them, who they are, what they are, and how they look is the standard measure of "normality", against which everyone/ everything else is understood.
I felt the Bal-ead character represented the strength it can take to shift your beauty ideals. For many women, the decision to go natural is a daunting one. One that leads to a lot of internal debate and sometimes a struggle, between how you want to be seen vs how you will be seen. This turmoil is played out by Bal-ead, after having made the decision to shave it all off. For a woman to decide to shave all her hair off is still a pretty big deal, but Bal-ead provides an important reminder that femininity is not defined by the length of your hair. I found it amazing how uncomfortable one older gentleman, not far from me in the audience, became when Bal-ead came out saying the the things she did. It amazed me because everytime she mentioned her now bald head he uttered a quiet disapproving sound, which baffled me because I looked at the actress standing in heels and lingerie, and couldn't understand how anyone could fail to recognise just how incredibly sexy and beautiful she looked. In fact seeing her re-ignited that temptation in me, to shave off all my hair. 
The final character Panther, was both hard hitting and hilarious. As she begins her rant in the hair shop, we the audience become her fellow shoppers, unable to escape the uncomfortable truths in her statements as she questions and occasionally condemns our choices... loudly! Her contemporary references exposes many of the dissatisfactions and irritations that I know I, and I'm sure many other women have, at the state of the mainstream and media in Britain. One comment about the Afro Hair and Beauty show is enough to set off a massive round of applause. 
There are so many more issues that I could and hopefully will discuss, that were brilliantly addressed by Crowning Glory, including ridiculous and unnecessary devisions between the African people and Caribbean people, the rejection of Black women by black men, and the notion of "otherness". 
But, rather than make this post any longer, I'll bring it to a close by once again thanking Somalia Seaton, Theatre Royal Stratford East and the whole Crowning Glory team, for bringing such an incredible piece to the stage.
If you've seen the play please take 3 seconds to vote for it in the Best New Play category >Here<

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