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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the October 23, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Drama Review: `Crowns’

Holy Bible, Corinthians (1.11.5): "But any

woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled brings shame

upon her head, for it is one and the same thing as if she had had

her head shaved."

Who can deny that demonstrating one’s flair for flamboyant style

in the service of a spiritual activity is a good thing? And who can

deny these are ingredients for a musical? We all know about dressing

for success. But in "Crowns," now having its world premiere

at the McCarter Theater, playwright Regina Taylor uses dressing up

for the glory of God as a catalyst for her latest theater piece. Up

until the 1960s both white and black people put on their best Sunday

clothes and bonnets to go to their various houses of worship. Evidently,

bouffant hairdos signaled the end of an era for white women in hats.

Stepping out fashionably on a Sunday, however, has continued as a

time-honored tradition within the African-American community. And

the black women of the community have made putting on a fancy hat,

commonly referred to as a crown, an important and meaningful aspect

of the ensemble. This, it is believed, not only gives the wearer the

aura of an empowered soul, but serves to demonstrate her faith, as

well. One character’s declaration is significant: "I’d leave my

children before I’d leave my hats. My children know the way home."

It is this practice that provided photographer Michael Cunningham

and co-writer Craig Marberry with the inspiration for their best-selling

book "Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats." In

the book, 54 women ranging in age from 22 to 78 are gloriously photographed

in black and white. It is their commentary — humorous and sad,

thoughtful and insightful — that provides the text.

The portraits and the accompanying text have been adapted and directed

for the stage by Taylor (whose play "A Night in Tunisia" recently

concluded a run at the George Street Playhouse). It is in the tradition

of what is known as "theater of testimony," and as such is

a theater piece that fits nicely into the genre that McCarter Theater’s

artistic director Emily Mann has favored as a writer. "Crowns"

is a co-production with the Second Stage Theater in New York, where

it is scheduled to move.

You could say that Cunningham’s black-and-white portraits are now

observed in living color and propelled by the "hattitude"

of six women distilled and synthesized from the 54. The women, played

by Carmen Floyd, Harriet D. Foy, Linda Gravatt, Janet Hubert, Ebony

Jo-Ann, and Tony Award-winner Lillias White, and one man in the role

of a preacher and others played by Lawrence Clayton, are observed

preparing for church, getting there, and their subsequent participation

in a wedding, funeral, and baptism. Each woman has her turn to step

forward to tell an anecdote and story with time out for bonding in

concert segments. White gets the obligatory show-stopper with the

song "His Eye is on the Sparrow."

Gussied up with music and a good helping of revivalist

dancing choreographed by Ronald K. Brown, the musical puts the spotlight

on each woman as she reveals through memories how she got her self-esteem

and her love of high fashion. Although the score contains traditional

spirituals and gospel music ("When The Saint’s Go Marchin’ In,"

"Marching to Zion"), it also features original music by the

show’s musical director Linda Twine and its percussionist and multi-instrumentalist

David Pleasant. Pleasant and pianist Bernard Corbett are often as

exciting to watch as anything on stage. Their contribution offers

the contrasting yet complementary rhythms and references to old mother

Africa as well as to today’s hip-hop culture.

With many black women coming from a background of domestic servitude,

their testimonies are used as a way to celebrate independence and

freedom. Dramatizing this mode of expression as a cultural statement

and as a compelling piece of dramatic literature is not an easy task.

Notwithstanding the exhibition of black beauty on the stage and the

invocation of black voices, "Crowns," offers some sweetly

nostalgic oral histories and some nice digressions into song and dance,

but sadly little dramatic substance. Under Taylor’s restrained and

dignified direction, "Crowns" is hard pressed to rise above

the decorative.

As was true with Taylor’s "Night in Tunisia," "Crowns"

has only the barest dramatic through line, and offers no surprises,

conflict, or resolution. Even though each woman gets a chance to relate

what the hat represents to her, how many she owns, and how she wears

them, the musical also wants us to take an interest in a group of

Southern women who are attempting to bring a young rebellious Brooklyn

girl, Floyd ("I don’t know how to be one of them"), into the

fold and turn her into a hatophile.

The cast of characters makes it clear that the adorned hat represents

a reflection of God’s blessing as much as it speaks for each individual’s

personal expression of solidarity with other women of faith —

"Our crowns are bought and paid for. All we have to do is wear

them," as James Baldwin observed. If the designer Emilio Sosa

has had a field day with silk, satin, cloth, straw, felt, and fur,

his task to give dozens of hats a life of their own succeeds. But,

like an unfinished hat, "Crowns" has all the trimmings on

hand (also thinking of Riccardo Hernandez’s simple and stylish hat-bedecked

stage set), but no form or structure on which to place it. You could

say that "Crowns" is all dressed up with nowhere to go.

— Simon Saltzman

Crowns, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, 609-258-2787.

$24 to $47. Runs through Sunday, November 3.

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