If a play about hats and, more specifically, hats for one segment of the population, sounds a bit too specialized and thin for a play, get thee to the Second Stage where Crowns has just had its official opening. You don't have to be black, female or a fancy hat lover to warm to Ms. Taylor's heartwarming adaptation of Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry's book Crowns. Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats. Sure it's much ado about hats. But, while it doesn't delve deeply beneath all that plumage and netting, it does give us a colorful musical slice of cultural history and provides an understanding of why so many black women collect church hats and view them as "heirlooms just like family crystal" to be passed down to the next generation.
You don't need what the dynamic Lillias White calls hattitude to appreciate the talent of the seven-member cast that lights up the stage. The performers have enough for everyone.
Besides the Tony-Award winning White, whose show-stopping rendition of "His Eye is on the Sparrow" does the late Ethel Waters proud, there's the stately Ebony Jo-Ann as the group's oldest and wisest churchwoman, Mother Shaw; Harriett D. Foy to lend sparkle to the role of Jeannette and the always reliably top-notch Linda Gravatt to portray Mabel. Their acting is wonderful. Their singing is even better. They ooze charisma. Though, four of the six women are neither very young or fashionably slim, all move with grace and energy and segue smoothly between their key parts as narrators and being part of the ensemble. Lawrence Clayton more than holds his own as the all-purpose man in the assorted stories, especially with his rousing rendition of "Touch the Hem of His Garment."
Riccardo Hernandez has created a splendid, workable unit set. Several ladder-like floor-to-ceiling poles hold an array of eye-popping "crowns." and a sliding upstage wall serves a variety of purposes such as a lineup of mannequins with outfits for the players to don. A proscenium frame features the words "sometimes under those hats there's a lot of joy and a lot of sorrow", a quote from James Baldwin that is incorporated into the dialogue. The text overall is taken from the source book's interviews by Craig Marberry.
The mostly songs, and there are enough for this to qualify as a musical, are taken from existing material -- with the exception of the rap lyrics for the opening prologue number (written by Ms. Taylor) and several numbers by the percussionist David Pleasant. Ronald K. Brown has smartly kept the choreography simple.
To substantiate the idea of the comfort and faith building magic of the church hat tradition, Ms. Taylor created a young urban character, Yolonda (Carmen Ruby Floyd), especially for the play. She serves as a bridge between the urban East and the old South (and, perhaps, between younger and older theater goers). Yolonda is a Brooklyn girl who feels alienated from these old-fashioned Southern women. Her visit with grandma (Ebony Jo-Ann) while still aching and bereft by her brother's murder, the interaction with these women, and her finally trading her red baseball cap for a "crown" and joining the church dancing, eventually helps to ease some of her pain.
As with any play built around individual anecdotes, some make more of an impact than others. There's an amusing sketch about Mother Shaw and the husband who tries, predictably with little luck, to make her ease up on the hat collection (she owns 300 -- a number apparently not all that unusual!) which has overtaken their house. Sometimes though, the beginning of yet another hatful of storytelling smacks of being just a bit too much of a good thing. Ms. Taylor's crowning achievement would have been to give the show a nip here and a tuck there, so that it would clock in at say eighty minutes instead of a hundred.
The super titles are another bit of excess. While they don't distract, they're not needed to clarify the various situations (prologue, morning, procession, morning service, funeral, baptism, recessional).
No review of this show would be complete without mentioning the contribution made by Robert Perry's lighting and the two-man band. The energetic percussionist David Pleasant often seems on the verge of flying off his perch at the side of the stage. Meena T. Jaohl, who understudies all the women, played Wanda at the matinee I attended without a hitch.
Crowns will no doubt will have a deserved life after Second Stage, maybe not on Broadway but certainly in theaters all over the country. When you consider that a custom-made church hat (my own favorite was Lillias White's tall pink feather extravaganza) can cost well over $300 , a $38-$55 ticket to Crowns is a bargain.
Out of town readers who can't wait for the show to come to a theater near them can get a copy of the book that inspired the show at our bookstore: Crowns. Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats
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