- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 24, 2003

You’ll never view hats as mere head coverings again after seeing the exuberant, soulful “Crowns,” a musical play written and directed by Regina Taylor that is currently blowing the roof off Arena Stage’s Kreeger Theatre.

The show is based on Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry’s book, “Crowns,” which combines elegant black-and-white photographs with interviews about black women and their church hats. The book was inspired by the authors’ mothers, and there is nothing uptight or old-timey about the women or their stories. Their passion for fashion — and religion — shows that there is nothing wrong with being both devout and glamorous. “I am going to meet the King, so I’d better look my best,” says one of the women.

A fired-up cast of six depicts the book’s many churchwomen and the men in their lives. Miss Taylor’s simple plot line takes on the form of a daylong church service, which starts with early morning prayer and moves on through baptism, a funeral, a worship service and on to the recessional.

Another framing device centers on Yolanda (Desire DuBose), a fly-girl from New York sent down to live with her grandmother Mother Shaw (Tina Fabrique) in Darlington, S.C., to get away from drugs and violence.

Over the course of the play Yolanda finds herself, moving from belligerence and defiance to being accepted in the church. She celebrates her journey in a beautiful scene where she is baptized, and the churchwomen gather around her, their fluttering, sky-blue fans symbolizing the rippling, healing waters.

Riccardo Hernandez’s evocative set says it all: A wood proscenium reveals the words “Our crowns have been bought and paid for. All we have to do is wear them.” And wear them they do. “Crowns” may be about faith, community, and keeping moving during hard times, but it is also about “hattitude,” as one character calls it.

Emilio Sosa has designed chapeaux that would make the Cat in the Hat pea-green with envy. They are towering creations in taxicab yellow and bright turquoise, blazing red and quivering with feathers, dove-gray and trembling with sequins. There are polka dots, stripes, bows and elaborate stitchery. At the end, the cast lines up on a staircase wearing a rainbow of hats so full of personality and drop-dead glamour they deserve their own round of applause.

These hats may have their roots in the Bible. It is a sign of respect to have your head covered in church, but they have other meanings to these strong women. They are a symbol of a woman being “up on her feet and working, making money for herself,” as one character puts it. These crowning glories show the world how a woman feels about herself and her faith, as well as her place in the community.

“Crowns” is a fashion show, but also a musical. Two musicians (e’Marcus Harper on piano and percussionist David Pleasant, who gets a rigorous workout beating the drums and slapping his body in earthy rhythms) flank the stage and perform soul-shaking gospel music.

The music evokes moments of glory, but also accompanies comic flourishes, such as when Bernadine Mitchell, portraying an elder of the church, just can’t help scatting like Ella Fitzgerald when she is moved by the spirit.

The cast is uniformly exceptional, but Gail Grate stands out as Wanda, a “do not cross me” kind of woman who crisply spells out the rules of wearing hats. Also marvelous are Miss Fabrique as the firm, loving Mother Shaw, and the stylishly playful Miss Mitchell, mentioned above, in a variety of roles.

It is important to note that the play is called “Crowns” for a reason. These women are certain that their real crowns are waiting for them in heaven, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t don an earthly facsimile or two in the meantime. These women are queens, and every queen must wear a crown.


WHAT: “Crowns” by Regina Taylor

WHERE: Kreeger Theatre, Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through Feb. 15.

TICKETS: $42-$60

PHONE: 202/488-3300

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