When a black woman wears a hat to church, she's not just complementing her outfit. She's expressing her personality and continuing a tradition that dates back to the days of slavery and earlier. "Crowns" by Regina Taylor delves into that tradition as originally illustrated in a book of the same name by photographer Michael Cunningham and journalist Craig Marberry. The book shows pictures and tells the stories of black women who are wearing their church hats.
In a production directed by Anthony J. Haney, TheatreWorks raises the roof of the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts as the cast of six women and one man tells the stories of Southern black women. The 95-minute show, performed without intermission, makes liberal use of traditional spirituals and gospel songs accompanied by percussionist Joe Hodge and pianist William Liberatore, who also serves as musical director. The plot is loosely united by Yolanda (Tiffany Thompson), a streetwise Brooklyn teenager who is sent to a small Southern town to live with her grandmother after her brother is shot and killed. The grieving, sullen Yolanda is slowly drawn in by the women she meets through her grandmother, Mother Shaw (Margarette Robinson).
Although the individual stories are fascinating and the ensemble cast terrific, the play and music tend to be somewhat repetitious. It opens with the seven actors dancing (choreography by Christopher Windom) in African costumes (designs by Richard Battle), but the connections to Africa are tenuous. One of the more interesting scenes comes toward the end when the women describe the beginnings of the civil rights movement and the official end to segregation. Mother Shaw tells of proudly walking into a previously whites-only department store and buying a lovely new hat -- much to the sales clerk's dismay. There also are many humorous moments as the women relate experiences of choosing and wearing hats.
Andrea Bechert's set, dramatically lit by Steven B. Mannshardt, is on two levels with curving staircases on both sides and a revolving center piece that alternates as a church, Mother Shaw's home and other locales. Above it hang rows of colorful hats, many of them designed by Ruth Garlard-Dewson, owner of Mrs. Dewson's Hats stores in San Francisco, whose clientele include former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown and show biz celebrities. She's also selling hats in the lobby before the show Besides Thompson and Robinson, the fine cast includes Peggy Blow, C. Kelly Wright, Sheila Ellis, Michelle E. Jordan and Clinton Derricks-Carroll, who all play multiple roles. Derricks-Carroll also plays guitar for some songs.
"Crowns" is an entertaining show that pays homage to hat queens and "hattitude" as well as deeper traditions of African American women.
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