by Rebecca Haithcoat
The morning after I attended a performance of “Crowns,” I marched right out and bought my first real hat. Sure, my closet holds its fair share of newsboy caps, woolen winter beanies and scarves. Yet my head had never been graced by the likes of the hats displayed on the stage of Actors Theatre the night before. It was a serious case of hat envy; I had to have one that flaunted, as the ladies of “Crowns” say, “hat-titude.”
Written by Regina Taylor and adapted from the book by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry, “Crowns” is the story of Yolanda (Crystal Fox), an outspoken young girl sent down south to live with her grandmother, Mother Shaw (Pat Bowie), after her brother is murdered in Brooklyn. When her distinct style and attitude ostracize her, the churchwomen of Darlington, S.C., set out to explain the customs and mores of not just the South but also their African heritage. They do just that by demonstrating what their hats, or crowns, have connoted throughout their various histories.
The actors of “Crowns” are masterful storytellers, whether they’re singing, dancing or telling an anecdote. The show encourages a bond between audience and actor, as evidenced by the cast’s ad-libs and speeches deliberately delivered outward. When taken to the extreme, this breaking of the fourth wall can be awkward for the audience, but these actors live so comfortably in their characters that it just feels natural. Especially noteworthy is actor Thomas Jefferson Byrd’s presence — though he has few lines, he imbues his chameleon-like performance with verve.
Musically, the show is at turns energetic, touching and deeply soulful. I’m ready to go live in a world where people break out into these songs at a moment’s notice. “That’s Alright” is a showstopper if ever there was one — Bowie’s rich voice pours out as the cast dances and has church. Velma’s (Erika LaVonn) rendition of “Rock of Ages” and “His Eye is on the Sparrow” is beautifully restrained, and Mabel (Julia Lema) and Jeanette (April Nixon) expertly weave their honeyed voices into the harmonies. I sensed a powerhouse voice living within Angela Karol Grovey (Wanda), but it was never quite unleashed. Yolanda’s (Crystal Fox) husky voice contrasts nicely with the genteel feel of the Southern women’s. All sing as if they are talking — mouths open and music flows out.
Costume designer Reggie Ray created an amazing number of detailed and exotic hats, which almost can be considered as taking a role in the play themselves. A clean set designed by Marjorie Bradley Kellogg allows the actors to craft backdrops in the audience’s imagination.
The concept of hats as crowns, symbols of earthly sacrifice followed by spiritual royalty, is what moves this production from simply enjoyable to meaningful. These women keep their African heritage alive through the ancient art of storytelling, using hats as means to express themselves and explain their histories. The women have aspired to become regal, and their message is clear: Anybody can own a hat, but it takes a queen to wear a crown.
BY REBECCA HAITHCOAT