By Mrinal Gokhale
Two years ago, Sherri Williams Pannell pitched the idea of bringing the musical, “Crowns” to the Milwaukee Skylight Theatre.
Her wish finally came true this year when the first show “Crowns” was performed on March 4, directed by Williams Pannell herself. In just one more week, the show will end on March 26.
When Williams Pannell considers Milwaukee’s high homicide rate this past year, she feels there was no better time to finally bring this musical to the city.
“The story features a female teen protagonist who deals with the loss of a loved one, and gains help through the elderly community in healing,” Williams Pannell said.
It also adds humor that is often used throughout the production.
“In the world we’re living in now, I hope it inspires adults to reach out to young people and mentor them,” Williams Pannell said.
Williams Pannell said that “Crowns” deals with a teenage girl who is told by her family to move from Brooklyn to North Carolina after a family member’s murder. While there, she learns about hats, also called “crowns.” Williams Pannell said there are some pretty memorable lines about “crowns” and the musical was inspired by the book, “Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats.”
“In the story, hats symbolize royalty and dignity of women who wear them. They recognize the beauty and royalty within themselves being a daughter of God,” Williams Pannell said. “One line in the play is: ‘a hattitude’ is something you must possess to wear a hat well.’”
Williams Pannell has been involved in acting since she was a child. She currently works as a lead education teacher, dramaturge at First Stage Theatre and as an independent contractor for other theatres.
She said she has worked with Skylight Theatre since 1984.
Once she pitched the play to Vishwa Subarraman, artistic director at Skylight, they held auditions and gathered a cast by July 2015.
The actors and musicians met with Pannell in February and rehearsed for three weeks straight.
“We worked eight hours per day, six days per week,” Williams Pannell said. Subarraman’s job is to budget, hire designers, hold casting calls and plan their major shows. He said Skylight has told stories through music for both the Spanish community in the play “El Cimarron” and the black community through “Once on This Island.”
“This season celebrated strong female characters. Sheri told me three years ago that “Crowns” deals with the murder of a young woman’s brother, and how she used history to overcome it, which resonates with Milwaukee’s black community,” Subarraman said. Both he and Williams Pannell are happy with the turnout of the show.
“The audience would sing along and clap throughout the show because the musical is so connected to the African American church experience,” Subarraman said.
Williams Pannell hopes that the production will inspire others in the community.
“I hope to inspire people to share their stories with their families and make a connection to an object that triggers a memory and be able to share that memory with a young person,” she said.
“Crowns” will play until March 26. Visit Skylight Music Theatre online for show times and ticket information.