There are some plays that just beg the question, "Why?" Among these, I thought at first that it would be a wise guess to prominently place a play about nothing but hats, and the women who wear them. You could do that, and in doing so relegate Crowns to some second-tier oddity status, or you could go see the show and be very pleasantly surprised by the impressive and finely rendered program.
Crowns does center around hats in a sometimes straightforward manner, but nothing is that simple about the show. Instead, writer-director Regina Taylor uses southern black women's hat fancies to springboard into a deep examination of their culture, gender relations, the church and any important topic Taylor can summon.
Part of the production's pleasure is in that it follows few traditional theatrical rules: There is little narrative, but rather a running collection of anecdotes and stories. These often mini-monologues are relayed by six women on stage: Mother Shaw, Wanda, Mabel, Jeanette, Velma and the younger counterpoint Yolanda (played by Tina Fabrique, Gail Grate, Lynda Gravatt, Karan Kendrick, Bernadine Mitchell and Desire DuBose, respectively). The individual characters are less important than the character of the whole, though Fabrique emerges as a natural leader for the women. Rather than defining clear characters and plot the women enjoy a fluid transition in personality, the only differences inherent to the younger Yolanda (in a slightly grating and almost stereotypical performance of youth culture) and the Preacher/Man (wonderfully expressive and often pained John Steven Crowley, who can sing too).
All the women give fabulously interchangeable performances: large women singing loudly in this celebratory show. The women share an easy chemistry, not informal, but very respectful; evocative of the ladies' constant regal bearing. Yet while I mentioned singing, this is no usual musical, rather the songs all evoke mood or moment, and serve as a bit of soul for the slight overarching narrative. The stories told are similarly remarkable, ranging in humor and poignancy, but all underlined by some gentle joke or passionate point. One of the women remarks about her favorite hats, "I'd lend my children before I'd lend my hats. I know my children know their way home, my hats might not."
Wise advice is also commonly given, and seems believable because of the women's honest bearing. "The truth is, if you see [and buy] a cheap hat you might see yourself one day," another woman explains.
Crowns narrative and themes converge in its portrayal of church life in a series of stories related solely to that kingdom for these "hat queens." The church stories define Crowns, giving the performance a spiritual direction previously absent. This manifests in even little interesting details, such as the women who wear their hats even at their funeral. However, humor is not forgotten. "People in glass houses should not throw stones. Now some of you do not pay tithe. But you've got new hats every Sunday," the Preacher/Man complains.
Crowns winds down entertainingly, though any climax or lesson is unlikely to be presented, though there are many small ones to be found. Very well designed, Crowns benefits from the laid-back atmosphere found in its staging. Riccardo Hernandez simple set design (a few benches, chairs scattered around the open stage) allows for a lot of enthusiastic and exuberant motion (which there's a lot of, as well as hat changes, due to Dianne McIntyre's choreography), while maintaining a majestic bearing in two pillars of hats that rise to the ceiling on each side of the stage. "Our crowns have all been bought and paid for, all we have to do is wear them," outlines the stage in large writing.
Emilio Sosa's costume and hat design is also magnificent, featuring a number of bold colors and extravagant hats. Likewise, music director William F. Hubbard has assembled a number of quality songs with simple phrasing and percussive soul. These are prominently featured thanks to the two prominent musicians, flanking the stage from opposite sides: pianist e'Marcus Harper and regular music man David Pleasant (complete with drums, traps, guitar and harmonica, a great blur of energy). The two play several powerfully rhythmic arrangements and are an arrestingly visible part of the show.
Crowns is based on photographer Michael Cunningham and interviewer Craig Marberry's book Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats, and a photo-exhibition is running concurrently at The Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture, through February 29.
Crowns is playing in the Kreeger at Arena Stage through February 15, 2004. Tickets cost between $42 and $55, however, people aged 5 through 25 can buy a limited number of $10 tickets until 5:25 the day of the performance.
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