Hats off to women in `Crowns'

Theater Review

December 20, 2003|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

WASHINGTON - "I'd lend my children before I'd lend my hats. I know my children know their way home," proclaims one of the proud, hat-wearing women in Crowns.

This statement comes fairly early in Regina Taylor's play, but even at that point, it's clear that a hat isn't just a hat in this stirring stage adaptation of Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry's book, Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats.

Difficult as it may seem to create a play about hats, it's a greater stretch to imagine a play based on a book that is essentially a collection of photographs with brief, accompanying text. But Taylor, who does double duty as director, brings the book's message to such exhilarating life that, once you've seen the show at D.C.'s Arena Stage, you'll never again think of a chapeau as a mere head covering.

Taylor's script relies on two structural devices. First, extrapolating from one of the interviews in the book, the playwright creates an angry teen-aged character named Yolanda (hip-hop-spouting Desire DuBose), whose journey takes her from the streets of Brooklyn to small-town South Carolina, and from rebellious outsider to accepted member of the community.

Second, Taylor presents this play-with-gospel-music in the format of a day-long church service, beginning with a procession and including a funeral, wedding, baptism and recessional (each announced by a projected title).

Seated to one side for most of the proceedings, Yolanda watches five women demonstrate what it means to don your best "crown" on Sunday and become transformed into a self-possessed, commanding presence, in short, a queen with, as one woman puts it, "hattitude."

The teen-ager's primary role model is her grandmother, played by Tina Fabrique with great dignity and impressive range. This is displayed to advantage in a scene that starts with her wedding to a man who doesn't understand her unbridled hat obsession - heck, even her own sister describes her as "the woman who'd rather have a good hat than a good man." By the end of the scene, her husband has died, and Fabrique's character quietly admits, "Today, I don't own a lot of hats."

All of the women - and John Steven Crowley, who plays the men in their lives - deliver distinctive portrayals. But particular praise goes to Gail Grate, who sternly dictates instructions on the proper style, proportions and decoration for a hat, and to Bernardine Mitchell, who brings a warm, comic sensibility to several characters, including a woman who can't be restrained from scat-talking her way through a solo rendition of "His Eye Is on the Sparrow."

The cast's close ensemble work gets several chances to shine in Dianne McIntyre's choreography, which uses movement to illustrate the support system these women offer each other. One of McIntyre's cleverest bits comes in the baptism scene, during which Yolanda is surrounded by dancing church women waving pale blue umbrellas that symbolize water.

Co-produced with the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta and the Goodman in Chicago, Arena's production also benefits from the accompaniment of pianist e'Marcus Harper and David Pleasant, a remarkable percussion, guitar and harmonica player who gets as much of a workout as the rest of the cast combined - no small feat, considering the high energy level of this crew.

Finally, of course, there are those exuberant hats - straw, felt, feathered, sequined - all created by costume designer Emilio Sosa. At the end of the show, each cast member dons a brightly colored hat and climbs a staircase at the rear of the stage. The effect is that of a human rainbow, and it's beautiful to behold.

Crowns

Where: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. S.W., Washington

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesday and Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and most Sundays, noon selected Tuesdays and Wednesdays, through Feb. 15

Tickets: $42-$60

Call: 202-488-3300

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