For perhaps the first time in
history, it took a coffee-table book of lush photographs to launch this
show. Michael Cunningham’s Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats (2000)
came with oral history commentaries by Craig Marberry. Within two years
stage and television actress Regina Taylor (currently performing on
CBS-TV’s The Unit) put together about a dozen traditional
songs, wrote her own rap number, and drew passages from Marberry’s oral
histories to produce Crowns at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre, former home of Syracuse Stage’s managing director, Jeffrey Woodward.
A feel-good show about heritage and harmony, Crowns has
been appearing in regional theaters all over the country. The last
production of the year is supposed to make Syracuse Stage subscribers
want to sign up for another season, and in that Crowns succeeds with panache.
Much as Crowns’ slight
narrative and familiar music touch the heart, even more striking is
this production’s appeal to the eye. Co-productions with Indianapolis’
Indiana Repertory Theatre have worked well for Syracuse Stage, and this
year Storrs’ Connecticut Repertory Theatre signed on as well. Those
combined resources are evident in the phenomenal production values as
well as highly select talent.
Glad hatters: From left, Crystal Fox, Roz White, Shannon Antalan, Chandra Currelly and Valerie Payton in Syracuse Stage’s Crowns. MICHAEL DAVIS
Scenic designer Felix E. Cochren offers
polished wooden surfaces, evocative of poor Southern churches and
shotgun houses, decorated with African motifs. As his program notes
explain, he has drawn on the work of African American artist John
Biggers. Visually, then, Cochren is also supporting playwright Taylor’s
contention in the dialogue that American black women’s pride in wearing
hats is rooted in Africa.
Even more cogently, costume designer Reggie Ray has worked out a scheme in which the seven players in Crowns are
linked to figures in Yoruba mythology. The finicky Wanda, for example,
wears yellow and gold to evoke the goddess Oshun. Not many audience
members would guess this without Ray’s notes because what we see is
spectacle. If in some alternative universe Versailles had somehow been
built by African Americans, this is what the queen and her
ladies-in-waiting would have looked like.
Taylor’s narrative thread for Crowns appears to be borrowed from Clarke Peters’ Five Guys Named Moe (1990), with the genders reversed. As in Moe,
a show with more music and less talk, a cynical young person learns to
embrace traditions of pride and elegance developed in the years before
civil rights and integration. Thus we first hear from angry Yolanda
(Shannon Antalan) with a side-turned red baseball cap from urban,
secular Brooklyn. After her brother is shot, Yolanda is sent by her
mother (never seen) to live with her Grandmother Shaw (Chandra
Currelley) in rural Darlington, S.C. There, in an alien culture she
initially disdains, Yolanda learns volumes about black women and faith
and herself from her grandmother and her friends. To promote dramatic
tension, Yolanda professes a defiant attitude through much of the first
hour of Crowns but there is never much doubt she will relent.
Along with Grandmother Shaw, Yolanda
meets four other well-dressed women and a series of men who make rapid
entrances and exits (all played by Dennis W. Spears). While each of the
women is assigned a name in the program and is distinguished by body
type, dress and attitude, they are never called by name and follow no
dramatic arc of development. We grasp quickly that Wanda (Terry
Burrell) is elegant, tall and willowy, while Mabel (Valerie Payton),
married to the minister, tends to be short, wide and bumptious.
Blonde-wigged Jeanette (Crystal Fox) can be flirtatious and coquettish,
but Velma (Roz White), the funeral director’s wife, can barely suppress
a roisterous naughty streak. Their advice on “hattitude,” the requisite
confidence or even hauteur it takes to wear a large hat, and the
etiquette the hat requires, feel all of one piece, as if the five were
a small chorus directed and choreographed by Patdro Harris.
Much of their identity is musical, with
Grandmother Shaw’s belting out of “That’s All Right,” early in the
first hour. In one of his successive personae, Dennis W. Spears stops
the show with “We Marching to Zion.” Other voices take leads in the
choruses of such numbers as “Wade in the Water” and the inescapable
“When the Saints Go Marching In.” But pride of place goes to the
knockout, heart-rending delivery of “His Eye is on the Sparrow” by
contralto Roz White. Two musicians, pianist William Hubbard and Otis
Gould on percussion, never quite accomplish the work of a small
orchestra, however. Gould pounds a heavy staff to evoke rhythmic
transit to Africa.
Two offstage, uncited presences in Crowns are
segregation and Jim Crow laws. The several recollections of the
different women, taken from Marberry’s field work, speak of bygone days
of white-only policies in the South, although not polemically so as to
make whites in the audience uncomfortable. Instead, the narratives wend
their way through the 112-minute, intermission-free production, to a
time before the final curtain when, matter-of-factly, oppression has
receded and rights have expanded.
Playwright Taylor’s point is subtle but
unmistakable. As the first African-American actress to play Juliet in a
Broadway production of Romeo and Juliet (1987), she thrives in
a liberated integrated environment. But she begs that American blacks
not reject the culture and community built in adversity. Churches and
gospel music do not imply proselytizing but rather a unique and
admirable cultural identity.
Curiously, Crowns opened at the McCarter the same year, 2002, white author Sue Monk Kidd published The Secret Life of Bees, a novel with many points of coincidence. No one could have foreseen at the time of Brown vs. Board of Education
55 years ago this month, but it appears that Americans, at least white
theater audiences, have come to think of the black experience as their
own. It follows what any number of playwrights, Neil Simon to Donald
Margulies, were able to do with the Jewish experience, and filmmakers
Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola with the Italian.
Almost but not quite. Crowns at
Syracuse Stage is a secular recreation of the heat and spontaneity of
the Southern black church. Players come down from the stage to exhort
us, as if we were sitting in pews rather than rows of comfortable
seats. We can clap our hands but are still too restrained to join in
This production runs through June 7. See Times Table for information.