“Hats reveal and they conceal,” Crowns playwright Regina Taylor states in an interview. Crowns is derived from a book of photographs and stories of African American women, compiled by journalist Craig Marberry and photographer Michael Cunningham.
Regina Taylor creates six composite characters from the stories in the book and weaves them together with traditional gospel and blues music to give insight into why so many African American women continue to honor the tradition of wearing hats to church. Creative Cauldron Founder and Producing Director Laura Connors Hull gives the audience insight in the program notes, telling us that “the reason is deeply rooted in an African tradition that says when you present yourself before God, you should have your head adorned. That tradition found its way in the traditions of enslaved Africans who were only allowed to meet on Sundays at church.”
And Regina Taylor takes us to church indeed! The story begins when Yolanda, a teen from New York, played wonderfully by Kendall Arin Claxton, is sent to live with her grandmother, Mother Shaw, after witnessing the shooting death of her brother. Claxton’s character is sincere and appropriately emotional. Trying to come to terms with her brother’s death, Yolanda is surrounded by her grandmother, one man, and five other women who impart stories of their mothers, sisters, aunts (and uncles) and…their hats.
But their hats are more than items on their head – they are the embodiment of an inner circle of characters that describe a wedding, a funeral, a christening, and even a bit of juicy church gossip as the colors and adornments of these hats change with every occasion. The hats themselves are brought to life as the characters portray compassion and humor, drawing the audience in as naturally as a conversation would happen between friends. Ultimately, Yolanda comes to the conclusion that everything happens for a reason, and she can embrace the past as a means to understanding her journey.
Mother Shaw is lovingly portrayed by TiaJuana Rountree. There is a gentleness of spirit in her character, but a sense of strength is evident in her voice. Velma, played by Iyona Blake, gives us a rendition of “His Eye is On the Sparrow” that stops the show with her amazing vocals. Kelli Blackwell is a sassy Mabel with a deep, rich voice. Cameron Dashiell (Wanda) and Eirin Stevenson (Jeanette) are strong leads as well, and each woman in this talented cast provides significance in the storytelling, whether they are the soloist or the accompanying vocalists. And let’s not forget the one man in the show who adds his resonant voice to the company of strong women. Stephawn P. Stephens plays the African leader, the preacher, the congregant, and my personal favorite, the frustrated husband searching his brain for a logical explanation for all those hats, when his wife “only has one head!”
Keyboardist Greg Watkins provides meaningful and original interpretations of familiar gospel and traditional standards, brought to life by the lovely, soulful voices of this cast. The set is simple and effective, with benches that serve as pews. Scenic and costume designer Margie Jervis provides us with the richness of hats as the fabrics that connect the anecdotes that weave this story together and teach us that everything is connected.
Running Time: Two hours, with one intermission.