Zuri’s Crown, a new musical, is making its debut in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Directed by Sheri Williams Pannell, the story is inspired by the fairy tale Rapunzel and is a modern-day retelling steeped in the Black hair experience, with book and lyrics by Pannell, Cynthia Cobb, Parrish Collier and Don E. Pannell. 

“It’s the journey of a young woman who is learning to appreciate her beauty within and without, in a very natural and wonderful way," Pannell shares. “She's connected to her community, but from a distance because she’s been sheltered by someone who thinks they're making the right choice for her.” Eventually, Zuri has a chance to explore the world on her own. "She finds out there are many ways of expressing what is considered beauty."

Bronzeville Arts Ensemble, a professional theater group in Milwaukee, is mounting the production. Pannell, who is the ensemble's producing artistic director, and several other theater professionals founded the organization in 2013. “We wanted to offer a theatre company that illuminates the Black experience in America through creating new theater work, providing artistic and educational programming, and inspiring a healing and positive social change in our community," she says. Black Arts MKE, an organization committed to increasing the availability and quality of African American arts and culture in the city, serves as executive producers.

The idea for Zuri’s Crown evolved after a staging of Into the Woods. "Cynthia said to me, 'We need our own fairy tale, an uplifting, wonderful story, told in our own special way.' And I said, ‘Let's go for it!’" shares Pannell.

"Zuri'sCrown" from Bronzeville Arts Ensemble. Image: Jenny Plevin/Black Arts MKE.
Cast of Zuri's Crown from Bronzeville Arts Ensemble. Image: Jenny Plevin/Black Arts MKE.

The show encompasses different genres of music to tell its characters' tales. “There are some spiritual and jazz sounds and African drumming. There is also R&B and a little bit of hip hop in there too because all of this music is a part of our community,” Pannell explains. One song, “Your Hair Has a Life of its Own,” written by Collier, is a testament to the versatility of Black hair. “The song names almost every style you can imagine a woman or a man wearing and it's such fun,” Pannell says. “We want to affirm it all. Because today we have choices and in having that choice, you have a right to express yourself as you please.”

While most musicals take 3 or 4 years to develop from concept to the actual production on stage, it only took 9 months to bring Zuri’s Crown to life. "We wrote the book, the script, the lyrics and the music and got it done in the amount of time it takes to make a baby," Pannell declares with a chuckle.

The Bronzeville Arts Ensemble takes its name from a Milwaukee neighborhood founded by African Americans in the 1900s. “We named ourselves after that community in honor of those ancestors that traveled through the Great Migration and established a thriving community full of arts and entertainment. Black art has been thriving here since our first arrival. Because of de facto segregation, we always had to create our own entertainment, our own art venues,” she says. “We have art galleries, jazz clubs and theater. And we have Ko-Thi Dance Company, the oldest existing African dance company in the country.” 

The musical is also part of World Premiere Wisconsin, where 50 local theater companies are mounting original productions through the first week of June. “We are the only African American theatre company represented," Pannell reveals. "And I'm going say 'this year' because we want to encourage Black people next year to offer something new.”

The next step for Zuri’s Crown? Pannell would love to take the show on tour and all the way to Broadway. "I believe that this is a story that needs to be shared, especially during this time with the Crown Act. We want to celebrate and affirm beauty in all of its incarnations."

Zuri's Crown runs at the Marcus Performing Arts Center in Milwaukee, April 27- 29.