Engage & Learn

Regina’s Women, Culture and History

Below are some resources providing more background on Regina Taylor’s uses of subject and character. They focus on her powerful female characters as well as some insight into other sources she has drawn from – folklore, American culture, and Dallas of the 1970s and 1990s.

Strong Voices, Strong Women: Regina Taylor’s Powerful Female Characters

By Neena Arndt, from OnStage

Ernest Perry, Jr. and Lizan Mitchell in Regina Taylor’s first Goodman production, The Ties That Bind. Photo by Liz Lauren.

In Regina Taylor’s The Trinity River Plays, the protagonist Iris Spears is first seen at the tender age of 17, a studious young woman struggling to establish her individuality while maintaining ties with her family, her home and the soil that nurtured her. As the story progresses, Iris blooms from a promising student into an accomplished writer, a wise and stoic woman who navigates the world with an inner strength she inherited from her hard-working single mother, Rose. The support system the women build and maintain—along with Rose’s sister Daisy, a scarred but still thriving firecracker, and Daisy’s daughter Jasmine, a high school dropout struggling with sobriety—helps them grapple with their various physical and mental illnesses, sexual abuse and the death of a young child, not to mention the trials and tribulations of everyday life.

With the support of the women around her, Iris transforms from a girl to a woman and, 17 years later, finds that transformation and growth can happen at any age. All four female characters in The Trinity River Plays—flawed yet strong, independent yet inextricably linked to one another—represent prime examples of Taylor’s depictions of power­ful women throughout her extraordinary career as a playwright.

The Trinity River Plays marks Taylor’s 10th production at Goodman Theatre. In the 17 years since she made her Goodman debut with The Ties That Bind at the old Goodman Studio, the Artistic Collective member’s stirring work has effortlessly traversed a wide range of sty­listic pathways, while dealing with such varied historical and contemporary issues as as the civil rights movement, the reali­ties of 1940s female jazz musicians and hat-wearing etiquette. What remains a constant throughout her powerful body of work is Taylor’s ability to give voice to a remarkable collection of female charac­ters—characters who frequently contend with overwhelming circumstances that threaten to destroy them.

Christiana Clark and Karen Aldridge in the Dallas Theater Center’s production of The Trinity River Plays. Photo by Brandon Thibodeaux.

In Magnolia, which premiered at the Goodman in 2009, Taylor explores race relations at a very specific point in place and time: Atlanta, 1963. Inspired by Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, Magnolia draws parallels between the changing power dynamics around race during the civil rights movement and the changing power dynamics around class in nineteenth-century Russia. The nar­rative moves between Thomas, a child of former slaves who used to work on a magnolia plantation; and Lily and Beau, the children of the plantation’s owners. In addition to its racial themes, Magnolia also investigates the struggles that Lily—an independent woman who wants to chart her own life course—faces, because of a culture that neither understands nor respects her vision of herself. This frustra­tion leads to the dissipation of her talents as she drinks, parties and connects her­self to unworthy men. Lily was born into a culture in which her race and socioeco­nomic status afford her countless privi­leges; at first glance she is an oppressor rather than a victim of oppression. But Taylor, not content to view history through a simplistic lens, lays bare the inequities and frustrations faced by even the most privileged women in 1960s America.

Taylor traveled even further back in history for the 2006 production of The Dreams of Sarah Breedlove. The play is based on the true story of Madame C.J. Walker (née Sarah Breedlove), the first female African American millionaire, and charts her late nineteenth-century rise from a washerwoman to a self-made business­woman, while chronicling the relationships she builds and destroys along the way. Breedlove is focused, ambitious and suc­cessful, but she is not always rewarded for that success in her community or in her family. Taylor shows us how her accom­plishments strain her relationship with her husband, whom she eventually divorces, and her daughter, A’Lelia. Like Lily in Magnolia, A’Lelia channels her frustrations into drinking and revelry, building her rep­utation as a party girl during the Harlem Renaissance. Both mother and daughter are exceptional women, possessing keen intelligence in an era when intellectual acumen was not always considered an admirable trait for females.

Regina Taylor in her one-woman show, Escape From Paradise. Photo by Johnny Subia.

While both Magnolia and The Dreams of Sarah Breedlove were written and per­formed in a primarily realistic style, The Dreams of Sarah Breedlove featured one element that evoked a nonrealistic world: Sarah’s dreams were seen onstage, com­plete with a shaman-like character who represented her African heritage. And one only has to trek back a few more years in Goodman history to find more work of Taylor’s that exists outside the realms of realism, as she has consistently defied stylistic categorization. Crowns—which premiered in 2002 as a coproduction at McCarter and Second Stage theaters and was first produced at the Goodman in 2004—showcases Taylor’s ability to blend song, dance and storytelling. The piece celebrates the role of hats in south­ern African American culture, and gives voice to the women who take pride in sporting them. The plot centers around Yolonda, a young woman who is mysti­fied by the traditions espoused by her hat-wearing elders, and who is (along with many audience members) initiated into the culture of crowns. Inspired by a book by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry, the show features monologues about such topics as hat etiquette, the proper dimensions of a hat and hat sex appeal. Loosely organized around rituals of African American Protestantism—pro­cessional, baptism, funeral—the show also features a dynamic gospel score. For those who are a part of the cultural phenomena being celebrated, the char­acters in Crowns are familiar, beloved figures. And those who don’t immediately recognize the women onstage will quickly recognize their strength, their vivacity and the importance of their stories. After its Goodman production, Crowns clapped and stomped its way through successful productions at regional theaters across the country.

Caroline Clay in 1999’s Oo-Bla-Dee. Photo by Liz Lauren.

But Crowns wasn’t the first play in which Taylor harnessed the power of music to tell potent stories. Like Crowns, Oo-Bla-Dee (1999) diverges from real­ism, swaying with the rhythms of 1940s jazz. Taylor began her writing process by researching female jazz musicians of the early twentieth century—largely forgotten women who were as good as or better than the men whose names have gone down in music history. Like Sarah Breedlove, these women were ambitious professionals charting difficult courses in a male-dominated field. During their lifetimes, they were viewed at best as novelty acts; at worst, a woman strad­dling a bass or closing her lips around a clarinet was considered vulgar and unfeminine. Oo-Bla-Dee, which takes its title from a 1946 song by composer Mary Lou Williams, chronicles the brief career of Gin Del Sol, a saxophone player who dreams of making it big in an all-female band. Like many of the other women that Taylor depicts, these characters are not flawless heroines or mouthpieces for a Pollyanna-ish brand of feminism. Rather, they are full-blooded and imperfect: the world that Taylor creates is as complex as the historical events that inspired it.

In 1995, Chicago audiences were treated to their first glimpse of Taylor’s consider­able skills as an actress. By that time, she had already made a name for herself on the small screen, in her role as Lilly Harper in the critically acclaimed series I’ll Fly Away, and in New York, where theater audiences knew her as the first African American woman to play Juliet on Broadway in Romeo and Juliet. Taylor’s Goodman acting debut, Escape from Paradise, a one-woman show which she wrote and performed, featured a vari­ety of strong female characters—from the character Jennine, whose nomadic tendencies seem to stem from the fact that her enslaved ancestors were forced to stay put, to Barbara, an “organi­cally grown” commune child. Taylor, in a smooth, transformative performance, embodied each woman with grace and lyricism. Although Taylor’s more recent works (including The Trinity River Plays) are subtly poetic, Escape from Paradise features language that is more overtly heightened, fully exhibiting Taylor’s extraordinary sense—both as a writer and a performer—of rhythm and rhyme.

More than a decade and a half after her work was first produced at the Goodman, Taylor’s plays are a mainstay of the the­ater’s programming. When The Trinity River Plays makes its Goodman premiere in January after a successful run at the Dallas Theater Center, audiences can expect to see powerful female characters who echo many of the women that have populated Taylor’s previous works. They can also expect an ambitious and com­pelling story—simultaneously specific in its time and place, and universal in its themes—that represents the latest step in Taylor’s evolution as a dramatist.

Women and Cancer: A Literary Battle

There are many other plays, some American and some not, that feature female characters suffering from cancer. Often this is central to the plot, but sometimes cancer exists as a theme or an added depth to that person’s characterization. Each of these plays tells a different story, and shows how different women come to terms with their cancer or the cancer of a loved one in unique, touching and humorous ways. Below is a list of some of these works for the stage:

The Clean House by Sarah Ruhl

The Shadow Box by Michael Cristofer

For Tiger Lilies Out of Season by Andrea Green

Autumn Elegy by Charlene Redick

To Be Young, Gifted and Black by Lorraine Hansberry

Rock N’ Roll by Tom Stoppard

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A Christmas Carol

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From Page to Stage

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Black n Blue Boys/Broken Men

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Teddy Ferrara

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Measure for Measure

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By the Way, Meet Vera Stark

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Bayard Rustin speaking to a crowd in 1965. Photo by Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division (via Wikimedia Commons)
The March on Washington

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Momma’s Boyz

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Resources

Study Guide Archive