Monday, October 18, 2004

Crowns (Cleveland Play House)

'CROWNS' worn with pride and purpose at the Cleveland Play House

Based on the acclaimed book of photographs and interviews, Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats (Doubleday, 2000), the musical ‘CROWNS,” now on stage at the Cleveland Play House, lovingly evokes the lives and stories of 54 “hat queens.” These queens are African American who women range in age from 22 to 78. They were photographed in the hats they wear to church each Sunday, hats which serve as their crowns, their visual proof of their sovereignty.

The accomplished actor and writer Regina Taylor distilled the women represented in the book to six female characters (and one man) and created a new character — a young woman from Brooklyn who is sent to live with her grandmother in South Carolina after her brother is shot. Directed by Taylor, ‘CROWNS’ received its world premiere in October 2002.

The script is a Gospel music-driven piece, a crazy quilt of music and movement and storytelling that takes the audience through the rituals of a Sunday in the South with characters delivering arias and direct addresses to the audience. These segments start in the Sunday church service but jump off into memories of life experiences in different times and different places.

The play captures the cultural heritage of Black Americans that reaches from modern America through slavery in the United States back to Africa. Little by little, through down home stories and songs sung by her grandmother and women friends, all wearing hat creations that make them stand up tall and confident reach out to Yolanda (the young woman) who eventually shows her acceptance by embracing her grandmother’s world through a river baptism. The stories range from an undertaker figuring out how to accommodate a dead woman wearing her favorite hat in the coffin to the role of Black women’s hats in the civil rights movement.

Staging devices help carry us through the stories and songs. First appearing in white slips, the ladies use costume changes and many hats, glorious hats, to set each story in a context. The visual images are aided by the projection of scene titles such as Prologue, Morning, Morning Service, Jumpin’ the Broom, Funeral, and Recessional.

The cast is generally superlative. Especially appealing are Lavonda Elam, dancer extraordinare; Edwina Findley, who “cops the right attitude” as the modern rappin’ young lady; and Cleveland native Angela Gillespie Winborn, who not only is delightfully funny, but can vocally wail. Michael W. Howell, who plays multi-roles as “The Man” has a wonderful singing voice and displays a great sense of comedy and dramatic timing. Queen Esther Marrow, who is the most heralded member of the cast, was wearing an ankle boot when I saw the production. Whether she was in pain or uncomfortable because of an injury, her characterization wavered and her movements were sometimes restricted.

One thing does sully the evening. Since the playing time is just under two hours without an intermission, some cutting would benefit the overall enjoyment. After a while it just became too much of a good thing.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: It is especially enjoyable to see that the play is drawing a great racial cross-section of the community. For many reasons, ‘CROWNS’ is a must see. Oh, and make sure you take time to see the Millinery Arts Coalition’s “Hats ON!” exhibit and sale in the rotunda at CPH.