Craig Marberry was born and raised in Chicago and went to high school in Gary, Indiana, where he wrote a weekly column for Info, the community newspaper. He attended Morehouse College in Atlanta where he won the Charles E. Merrill fellowship to spend his junior year studying at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. He also won the school’s first annual essay contest and in 1981 was named Morehouse Man of the Year. After graduating with honors with a degree in English literature, he was awarded the Thomas J. Watson fellowship to conduct independent study of Third World media at the University of West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica. He then earned his Master’s from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
Marberry, who has written for The Washington Post and Essence magazine, worked as a television reporter for six years before launching a video production business named Info Video, which he ran for twelve years. His clients included Nabisco, American Express, and Wachovia. When one of his clients needed still photographs for a publicity campaign, Marberry hired commercial photographer Michael Cunningham for the job. The two men had fallen out of touch for five years when, in the summer of 1998, Marberry heard that Cunningham was compiling a collection of photographs of African-American women wearing church hats.
Immediately, Marberry contacted Cunningham and proposed that the two team up on the project. “Michael’s photographs were breathtakingly beautiful,” Marberry said, “but I knew this project could be much more than a photography book. I felt it in my bones.” Marberry would gather oral histories to accompany the portraits, heartfelt testimonies that would reveal the Biblical, African, and fashion roots of the church-hat traditionas well as the singular “hattitude” of each woman. Marberry also persuaded Cunningham, who was planning to self publish, to let him conduct the search for a mainstream publisher. Later, Marberry asked renowned author and poet Dr. Maya Angelou to write the book’s foreword.
In June of 1999, Marberry began writing a book proposal for CROWNS: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats (Doubleday/November 2000). By that September the proposal had been rejected by a dozen literary agents. But Marberry and Cunningham eventually signed with an agent in October of 1999 and they accepted a book deal from Doubleday editor Janet Hill by year’s end. CROWNS was an instant hit. (It is in its ninth printing.) “The brief interview that accompanies each of the 50 portraits in CROWNS,” wrote Seinna Powers in January Magazine, “uncovers slices of joy and sorrow. It’s an unforgettable encounter.”
From the very beginning, Marberry believed his collection of oral histories would translate well to the stage. In November of 1999, a year before CROWNS was published, he slipped a mockup of the book to Emily Mann, the Tony award-winning artistic director of the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey. (Mann happened to be visiting Greensboro, North Carolinawhere Marberry lived at the timefor the anniversary of the Greensboro Massacre, the subject of her play, Greensboro: A Requiem.) “I knew that Emily Mann had adapted the book Having Our Say for the stage,” recalled Marberry. “So after the performance of Greensboro: A Requiem, I buttonholed her and explained that I was gathering a collection of oral histories that would be perfect for her next play. Her eyes glazed with a not-another-author-pushing-his-book kind of look. But when I told her the subject, those glazed eyes nearly popped from their sockets.”
After reviewing Marberry’s collection of narratives, Mann agreed that his work would work on stage. She commissioned actress/playwright Regina Taylor, perhaps best known for her starring role in the television series I’ll Fly Away, to write and direct the adaptation.
The McCarter Theatre staged the world premier of CROWNS on October 15, 2002. The play then debuted off-Broadway at the Second Stage Theatre in Manhattan on November 13, 2002. Taylor’s production has set box-office records in nearly every city to which it has traveled, including Chicago, Atlanta, and Washington, D.C., where it won the Helen Hayes Award (D.C.’s answer to the Tony Awards). And theaters across North America are staging their own productions of the popular play: Detroit’s Plowshares Theatre, Houston’s The Ensemble Theatre, and Vancouver’s Art Club Theatre Company, to name a few. (View the complete current list here.)
Winning awards in each of the seven categories for which it was nominated, CROWNS also swept through the 31st Annual Vivian Robinson AUDELCO Awards for Excellence in Black Theatre. (CROWNS was awarded Best Musical Production of The Year, Outstanding Ensemble, Outstanding Lighting Design by Robert Perry, Outstanding Costume Design by Emilio Sosa, Outstanding Direction of a Musical by Regina Taylor, and Outstanding Musical Direction by Linda Twine.) The Wall Street Journal recognized CROWNS as one of America’s top-ten favorite plays of the decade.
The overwhelming success of the stage adaptation of Marberry’s collection of narratives proves that the instincts of Emily Mann and Marberry were right on target. “I can't heap enough praise on Regina Taylor for the inspired beauty of her work,” said Marberry. “And much credit goes to the beautiful women in CROWNS. It's their stories that have touched so many hearts.”
In July of 2000, four months before CROWNS was published, Marberry began working on his second book: SPIRIT OF HARLEM: A Portrait of America’s Most Exciting Neighborhood (Doubleday/December 2003). He envisioned the bookanother fascinating collection of oral histories and photographsas an intimate stroll through Harlem. "In other words," wrote Marberry in the book's introduction, "if you walked the streets of Harlem, then these would be the diverse people you might meet, the captivating tales you might hear."
A year after he began his research and interviews, Marberry invited Cunningham to join the project. Marberry then persuaded the legendary photographer Gordon Parks, who began his illustrious career in Harlem, to pen the book’s foreword. The book won critical acclaim, including praise from The Washington Post, which made SPIRIT OF HARLEM an “Our Critics Picks of the Year” selection, describing it as a “fascinating survey of intriguing Harlemites.”
“I know you’re not supposed to pick favorites among your children,” confessed Marberry, “but SPIRIT OF HARLEM is my pet project. The summer that I turned eleven my mother took my four brothers and me to Harlem. Ever since, I’ve been mesmerized by the place and its people. Even if you’ve never been to Harlem, these stories, these confessions, make you feel like an insider.”
Marberry began working on his third book in February of 2003. CUTTIN’ UP: Wit and Wisdom from Black Barber Shops (Doubleday/May 2005) is his first solo project. For eighteen months, he crisscrossed the nation, collecting colorful stories from barbers and customers alike. Marberry compiled oral histories that vividly capture the barber shop in all its humor and camaraderie. And because he wanted the book filled with images from every decade since the 1940snot contemporary portraitsMarberry borrowed his subjects’ personal photos as well as their stories.
“Visually speaking,” Marberry explained, “I wanted this book to be an exciting departure from my first two books. Instead of the formal feel of professional portraits, I wanted to use snapshotsimages as approachable and intriguing as the barber shop itself. I wanted candid pictures that would invite readers inside this special place and make them feel as if they were turning the pages of a treasured family photo album.”
In December of 2003, Marberry showed an excerpt of CUTTIN’ UP to Molly Smith, Artistic Director of Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. Smith loved the idea and wasted no time. By the following spring, she was ready to adapt CUTTIN’ UP for the stage. Smith approached the multi-talented playwright/director Charles Randolph-Wrightwho starred in the original cast of Dreamgirls and wrote and directed the play Blue, starring Tony award winner Phylicia Rashad. “I was certain I was going to pass on doing the project,” confessed Randolph-Wright, who was swamped with directing a new movie and play of his own. “But by the time I read the second narrative I was hooked.” He added, “The spirit, heart, and voice of this book are so extraordinarily real that I feel as if I just got a haircut.”
The Arena Stage presented the world premier of Charles Randolph-Wright’s adaptation of CUTTIN’ UP November 4, 2005 through January 1, 2006. The play opened to rave reviews." As artfully done as a Jacob Lawrence painting," said USA Today. "An obvious crowd-pleaser," said Variety. And CurtainUp.com gushed: "CUTTIN' UP will have you laughing, crying and singing . . . another hit à la CROWNS." CUTTIN’ UP is scheduled for performances in cities including Pasadena, Cleveland, and Atlanta.
“It’s such a joy,” Marberry said, “to chronicle illuminating facets of the African-American experienceone tale at a time.” He added, “Oral history is an underrated genre. But, to me, hearing ordinary people tell their extraordinary storiesthe stories of our timecan be as riveting as the best fiction. I feel so blessed.”
A popular college lecturer, Marberry has spoken at Barnard College, California Institute of Technology, Columbia University, Fayettville State University, Fordham University, Morehouse College, North Carolina A&T State University, Roger Williams University, University of North Carolina Greensboro, and Winston-Salem State University, among others. (To book Craig Marberry for a speaking engagement, contact him at email@example.com.)