Story: Yolanda is a teen full of energy and enthusiasm albeit on a somewhat troubled path with her life in Brooklyn, where she lives with her mother and siblings. After her brother is shot and killed, Yolanda’s life dramatically changes when her mom sends her down South to live with her grandmother, Mother Shaw.
While struggling to fit in with the kids in her new school who view her sarcastically as an ‘outsider,’ Yolanda gradually becomes indoctrinated into a slower, gentler way of life lived by the ladies of the church attended by Mother Shaw. There, she learns the history behind the custom of the women who wear all manner of hats to Sunday service.
Yolanda discovers that those hats offer a direct link to her African heritage, from ancestry in Africa through slavery in the Old South and the fight for Civil Rights in the 20th century and beyond. The various head coverings also epitomize the personalities of the ladies and their own unique histories, from the precious few owned by the poor to the hundreds of hats housed in the personal collections of the middle class.
Whether dressed for a morning service, a baptism, wedding or a funeral, these ladies wear their ‘crowns’ in their visits with the ‘king’ (Jesus) with their ‘hattitude’ of distinction.
Highlights: The Black Rep opens its 42nd season with an invigorating presentation of Regina Taylor’s paean to the history behind the lavish hats worn by African-American women of the South and elsewhere.
Other Info: The idea for Crowns, according to an NPR story, began in 1998 when a North Carolina photographer took a series of photos of women in their hats. He and a writer colleague became interested in the flamboyant headwear especially worn by African-American women to church.
Eventually, director and playwright Regina Taylor wrote a play about the subject titled Crowns, which became an off-Broadway production circa 2002.Crowns features a cast of six women and one man.
Although Yolanda’s character is the focus of the show’s plot, the real core role is Mother Shaw, one of five women who regale Yolanda and the audience with their predilections for head attire as well as reminiscences of their mothers and grandmothers before them.
Director Linda Kennedy brings forth a joyous expression of these characters from her accomplished cast, backed up energetically by musical director Charles Creath at the keyboard and his colleague, percussionist Matthew Clark, who offer a mix of gospel, jazz, blues, rhythm and blues and spirited dance pieces.
The two musicians are seated at the rear of the stage in the center, just behind a handsome and tilted giant fedora, adorned with a massive rose, fashioned by scenic designer Dunsi Dai. The set also includes prominent and colorful sheets which bracket a multi-hued cross at the center of the church’s services.
Anita Jackson anchors the cast with a winning performance as the no-nonsense Mother Shaw, who isn’t above making a grand presence on the stage as she belts out numbers with her powerful voice, including When the Saints (Go Marching In), None but the Righteous and others.
Amber Rose as mortician Velma shows fine comic timing as well as a lively vocal interpretation of His Eye Is on the Sparrow and When I’ve Done the Best I Can. Maureen L. (Hughes) Williams mines the show’s humor with an amusing portrayal of teacher Wanda, who cuts quite a fine rug when the spirit moves her.
Eleanor Humphrey uses her ‘model’ looks to accentuate Jeanette’s descriptions of how to flirt with a man by utilizing proper placement of a hat on an attractive head. As Yolanda, Tyler White introduces the spirited musical with a rousing rap number titled Where I Belong, then slowly joins in the ladies’ merriment.
As the ‘Man,” Myke Andrews sparkles in several supporting roles, including a preacher, an itinerant laborer and loving father, Mother Shaw’s beloved late husband and more, all the while showing off his considerable dancing skills.
A number of foot-tapping, finger-snapping ensemble pieces keep Crowns moving along at an enjoyable clip, enhanced by Kirven Douthit-Boyd’s enchanting choreography, while Daryl Harris’ costumes are highlighted by the festive finery of hats which complement the splendid outfits worn by the players. Joe Clapper provides the lighting which underscores the set, with finely placed sound designs of trains, street noise, etc. from Kareem Deanes.
Crowns succeeds both in providing engaging musical and comic entertainment as well as an informative explanation of the historical meaning and value given to the hats worn by African-American women in church, one of the few places they were afforded freedom to express themselves for too much of American history.
Play: Crowns: A Musical
Company: The Black Rep
Venue: Edison Theatre, 6445 Forsyth Blvd. at Washington University
Dates: September 12-16, 19-23
Tickets: $10-$45; contact 534-3810 or www.theblackrep.org
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5
Photos courtesy of Phillip Hamer