Crowns, a gospel-infused musical, is nothing short of dazzling. It’s one of the most joyful shows I’ve seen in a long while. I plan on spending the month of February urging people not to miss it. I guarantee afterwards you’ll walk up the aisle feeling energized and uplifted. This wonderful Open Door Repertory production is an unforgettable experience.
Now I can only speak as a white guy, but I always sense that lots of white folks feel that celebrations of African American cultural heritage during Black History Month are not really for them. They’re not racists, mind you. They just fail to connect. Well, here’s a feel-good show about a half-dozen black women and their vibrant hats that’s both inspirational and fun-a true toe-tapper-and it’s for everyone. You certainly don’t have to be black, female, or a fancy hat lover to be captivated by this dynamic evening.
Director McKinley Johnson achieves a combination revival meeting and fashion show with his engaging ensemble. Johnson’s choreography is lively. The energy of his cast of six women and one man really raises the roof. Everyone has strong voices. I had to constantly keep reminding myself that I was seated in a grammar school auditorium in Oak Park (Hatch School) and not one of those slick Halsted Street theatres. The entire vivacious cast shines.
Crowns was adapted by playwright Regina Taylor from a best-selling coffeetable book featuring black-and-white photographs of African-American women wearing their church hats. During segregation when blacks had few opportunities to gather socially, their houses of worship were just about the only places where they could come together to express themselves through worship, song, or fashion.
“Adorning one’s self for worship,” one character explains, is an African tradition. This wonderful musical shows how black women would define themselves by the hats they wore.
Desla Epison wears a backwards baseball cap and raps her lines when the show begins. She’s Yolanda, a streetwise homegirl from Brooklyn whose beloved brother has been shot and killed. Not knowing quite what to do with the angry, grieving girl, her mother sends her down South to live with her grandmother. So Yolanda arrives with a chip on both shoulders. Epison effectively conveys typical teenage body language.
Initially Yolanda is skeptical and resistant. She wants little to do with hats. They’re itchy or hot or heavy or they mess up one’s hairdo, she insists. But soon Yolanda begins to interact with her grandmother and her circle of other older church-lady friends-“Hat Queens,” they call themselves-who proudly wear their elaborate headgear on Sundays.
Predictably, perhaps, Yolanda begins to turn her life around and find connections to black traditions and spirituality as she listens to the women’s rich oral history monologues.
Their down-home stories, loosely strung together, are either touching or funny-and often are both. Each member of the ensemble takes on multiple roles. Monique Whittingham, playing a woman who sings in church even though “no one ever asked her to,” does a chillingly beautiful rendition of “His Eye Is On The Sparrow.”
Most of the soul-stirring music is well known. Some of the numbers used to be called spirituals, such as “Wade in the Water” and “We’re Marching to Zion.” The score also incorporates tribal rhythms, blues, old-time jazz (“When the Saints Go Marching In”), and even hip-hop music.
From the moment Deanna K. Reed comes on as wise Mama Shaw, a proud older woman, it’s evident she possesses a commanding voice and perfect timing. She often brings down the house. Yet there are quiet, moving moments, too, like when Reed describes the experience of buying her first hat in a previously segregated department store in the ’60s.
Renardo Robinson, the all-purpose male in the episodes, plays all the men’s roles, from a rural preacher to an angry husband of a woman who keeps sneaking more and more hats into their tiny little house. Robinson tap dances and even performs a baptism in a river.
People generally don’t wear hats like they used to. In earlier decades both men and women, white and black, seldom left home without a head covering. I remember my father’s fedora and my mother and her sisters in the ’50s wearing hats and gloves just to ride the el downtown to go shopping. In the winter, of course, hats are still worn for utilitarian reasons-for warmth. But many in the African-American community continue to embrace the tradition of wearing stylish hats to church. A hat, many say, makes the wearer a queen and the hat, her crown.
“Sometimes under these hats,” one character explains, “there’s a lot of joy and a lot of sorrow.”
Sherita Lyles, as a preacher’s wife, lays down the millinery “Hat Queen Rules”: “Don’t let people knock the hat; don’t let people touch the hat; don’t hug too close.”
The set by Steven Saliny features a large tree bearing dozens of hats.
Clifford Dubose is music director, Oscar Brown is the percussionist. Their two-man band is terrific.
Crowns, deeply rooted in the African-American experience, is proud and powerful yet never preachy or dull. So if you are looking to acquire some “hattitude,” a word coined in the show, this magical, hand-clapping, foot-stomping 90-some minute celebration is just the ticket.