Crowns is about hats — and so much more.
Not a book musical but an impressionistic tapestry, it takes the threads of a story about a young woman who is sent from Brooklyn to live with her aunt in North Carolina after her brother is shot, and weaves them into a richer fabric.
Playwright Regina Taylor based Crowns on a coffee-table book, Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats, by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry with a foreword by Maya Angelou, a celebration of the stories and style of strong African American women. The stage production brings these portraits to vivid life, with Gospel music, sass, and heart.
Willow Star Singleton plays the young woman, Yolanda, with a touching combination of bravado and fragility. She is a skeptical stranger in this new world at first, rolling her eyes, scratching under the straw hat she grudgingly wears, and falling asleep on her pew-mate in church. But her wounded heart is unveiled at one point as she dances ever more frantically and breaks down in grief, mourning the loss of her brother. She has brought his ball cap with her to remember him by, even considering rebelliously wearing it to church. But as she hears the church ladies tell the rules of hat-wearing, from flirting to funerals, and show what their hats mean to them, she comes to understand what they have been through, too. Hats, she sees, are more than what people must put on their heads; they are history, identity, and pride.
The first character on the stage is called simply Man (Otega Okurume), and he portrays all the male characters, from a preacher with roots in Africa to the Pastor of the Baptist Church to various fathers and husbands, and even Yolanda’s brother. He is charming and anchoring by turns.
TiaJuana Rountree, as the aunt, Mother Shaw, reigns as a Queen from the start in her white suit and succession of white “crowns.” A force to be reckoned with, she also deeply cares for the young woman who has been sent to her to heal.
Each of the other church ladies revels in her own color and her own style. Mabel (Temple Fortson) is vivid and joyful in red. Jeanette (Letricia Loftin Russell) embodies sublime sass in electric blue from her bow-bedecked high heels to her hats that get stratospheric as the show goes on. Velma (Kayla Adams) seems soft in rose, and her voice, too, starts out sweet and low but then soars to the rafters. Wanda (Kyndall Rhaney) is warm and down-to-earth in brown, black, and orange. Each of them exudes the confidence that comes from surviving, thriving, and knowing they look fine doing it!
The Ensemble (Deidra Johnson, Monique Morman, Naioma Muse, and Andrea Trent) present the experiences of Black women back to when they had to wear hats to protect themselves from the sun in the fields, and as the robe-clad church choir, they gloriously uplift the other characters.
The soaring Gospel music is beautifully managed by LaVar Betts, who accompanies the singers on piano with Virgil Boysaw III on drums.
And of course, the nonhuman stars of the show are the hats, collected and corralled by Costume Designer Jeaneo Binney. There are more hats than are even worn, decorating the walls and piled up into the corners of the simple church set. And each of the church ladies has a succession of hats in her signature color. It is an impressive display of “hattitude.”
Director/Choreographer Rikki Lacewell Howie has lived in this world, and brings it to vivid life on stage, with humor, grit, and grace. The second night’s audience, many of whom sang the Gospel tunes along with the cast, became a joyful congregation. Whether we were wearing hats or not, we all felt we left wearing crowns.
Running Time: One hour and 40 minutes with no intermission.
Crowns plays through February 25, 2023, presented by 2nd Star Productions performing at The Bowie Playhouse, 16500 White Marsh Park Dr, Bowie, MD. Purchase tickets (general admission, $25; senior, student, military, $22; child, $15) online.
This performance is sold out—however, a limited number of walkup tickets may be available at the box office on a first-come-first-served basis.
COVID Safety: Audience members must remain masked while in the Playhouse. Vaccination is strongly recommended.