As Hartford Stage opens its 41st season with "Crowns," hats are what it's all about. Hats-and yet more than hats. With hats as symbols, this musical really focuses on the indomitable southern black ladies who wear those hats to church each Sunday.
In a soaring show which combines gospel, rhythm and blues and hip-hop music, "Crowns" follows the adventures of Yolanda, a street kid from Brooklyn. Sent south to stay with her grandmother, after her brother is killed in a shooting, she initially resists the new culture into which she is thrust. But gradually, she comes to understand that culture and appreciate the dignity and integrity of those church ladies, particularly her grandmother.
The women may spend their week-days as maids, laundresses and seamstresses to the white folks, but on Sundays their come into their own. The very elaborate hats, home-made or store-bought, crown their heads and each in turn, as some one says, becomes the Queen of England. They are following the Biblical injunction which says that women must cover their heads in the Lord's house. But they are also following their own needs for creativity, self-expression, and self-esteem.
Originally a book by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry, writer/director Regina Taylor has adapted the book, turning it into sheer theater. While the many testimonies of southern women pepper the show, the cast breaks into glorious song and dance at frequent intervals.
This is ensemble work at its very best. It is, in fact, an organic piece with an identity of its own, speaking as one voice and spreading in all directions. The seven multi-gifted actors (John Steven Crowley, Desire Dubose, Tina Fabrique, Gail Grate, Karan Kendrick, Bernadine Mitchell, and Jacqueline Williams), the brilliant percussionist David Pleasant, the able pianist Anita Baker all combine to create a seamless work of art-spiritual as well as aesthetic. In the moments which depict church services, excitement mounts and power grows with the throbbing drum beat and the congregation's rhythmic and vocal responses. As the company moves through this service, or breaks into an African dance, religious and theatrical impulse become one. "Crowns" makes it very clear that theater, back in ancient times, began as an expression of religion!
If there is any criticism of this remarkable piece, it is that the hat stories natter on too long. Careful pruning would only serve to strengthen "Crowns." The piece is most effective when performers are allowed to break into music and movement. And, secondly, lyrics, particularly in company numbers, are often difficult to decipher.
But, all told, "Crowns" is a gem which throws light on a unique culture. Hats off to Regina Taylor and the entire company.
-- Irene Backalenick
Sept. 3, 2004