Wednesday, October 31, 2012
Theater review: Dallas writer Regina Taylor’s Crowns comes to life at the African American Repertory Theater
These songs penetrate your heart, regardless of your religious convictions.
DESOTO I often drive by a strip mall on a back street in Irving on Sundays. In a parking lot I see people wearing outlandish, colorful outfits. I imagine they look like a celebration of royalty in Africa, but it seems out of place in Irving. What stands out is the variety of hats the women wear, large and colorful. “Hats” may be an understatement, for they are truly amazing creations I can’t describe. I believe these are people who may celebrate the Yoruba tradition, an African culture and religion which originated in Nigeria, and their hats are called Gele.
Crowns, now playing at African American Repertory Theater in Desoto, is about hats. Written by Dallas native Regina Taylor, Crowns is about the hats American women own, what they signify and how they express the personalities of their wearers. Crowns is about the empowerment of these women who buy, create, wear, show off, pass-down, and embody their hats, and the strong sense of community this shared experience creates across the generations. It’s about the journey they take to find their unique power, and the rewards and pride and royalty they feel wearing their hats. These women are queens and they’re literally crowned.
Music runs through the entirety of Crowns, using songs and short monologues to tell the people’s backgrounds. Directed by Sonya Ewing Andrews, this play moves and swings and keeps the audience singing and tapping to the beat, along with a little laughter and a few tears. It’s a feel-good story and a fantastic message.
It must be gratifying for Musical Director Melanie Cherice Bivens to work with such a powerful cast of singers, each with strong stage presence, comfortable acting chops, and voices that fill the theater with melody and feeling. These songs reach out and penetrate your heart, regardless of your religious convictions. Each singer is exceptional as a soloist and when they sing together it’s the epitome of a heavenly choir, perfectly blended with multi-layered harmonies. Melanie Bivens is herself a musician extraordinaire. She plays a constant piano riff of different musical styles behind the monologues and through all but a couple of a cappella songs. She is the soundtrack for Crowns.
David Tenney put this story on a simple open stage surrounded by platforms on the rear perimeter. His lighting and set colors stress violet and soft textures that accent the bright colors of the actors’ costumes. Broad-brush graphics of ladies in hats adorn the side curtains. A scrim provides a background for projected photos and graphics to show time, place, and ambiance.
The story in Crowns goes beyond hats. Yolanda, a young girl from Brooklyn comes to South Carolina to escape the street violence after her brother dies. Kenneisha Thompson plays Yolanda. She begins the young girl’s journey as a brash young street-savvy rapper used to a fast-paced, cynical outlook on life. When she arrives in South Carolina to stay with her grandmother, Mother Shaw, played by Catherine Whiteman with grandmotherly patience, she’s absorbed into the small-town South Carolina church where praising God goes hand-in-hand with wearing hats. Whiteman makes Mama Shaw both powerfully confident and firmly loving in guiding her granddaughter through the experience. Yolanda is obliged to listen to stories and songs of the ladies of Mother Shaw’s church and what she hears are stories of how these hats make their lives joyful. The stories carry through a rousing church service, a wedding, a poignant funeral, and the baptism that brings a young girl to the discovery of her purpose. Thompson gives Yolanda a youthful impatience we’d expect, but allows her to grow as she learns.
Rhonda Gorman adorns the ladies in brightly-colored silky dresses of blue, orange, red, purple, and gold, each matching their character’s connection with the Yoruba goddess they represent. African robes and various costume pieces are used for story vignettes. Yolanda wears Brooklyn street clothes, also unconsciously matching a Yoruba goddess. Of course there are hats - colorful, big, small, wide, thin, decorated, and plain.
Ebony Marshall-Oliver plays Jeanette, the lady in blue. Fresh from her Critics Award for her work in Pretty Fire, Marshall-Oliver is a supporting character here, but uses her powerful presence to show Yolanda that everyone has pain in life. Her friends, Wanda, played by Natalie King, and Velma, by Ardina Lockhart, are dressed in orange and purple, respectively. Their monologues and songs tell of their relationship to their hats, helping Yolanda learn the “rules” of hats. Tommy King and Malcolm Beaty, as Man 1 and Man 2, play all the male roles; brother, father, husband, preacher, tribal leader, male suitor. Both men add masculine voice to the songs. It turns out there’s a story about hats for men as well. With slight costume and voice adjustments, they make each of their characters distinct, though each may only last a few moments.
The final cast member provides one of the highlight moments in Crowns, for me, one of the most memorable. In the midst of the church service, Liz Fransisco, as Mabel in her bright red dress and hat, fires up a sermon and delivers one of those rhythmic melodious call-and-response sermons you hear in churches across the South. It is high-energy, high-volume and highly inspiring. If you’re not into religion, you’ll be highly entertained. If you are, you might just stand up and join the dance.
Crowns has a story to tell and the music to carry the message. This cast is a power-house of talent and energy. And this production is well-directed and well-designed. It is worth the drive to DeSoto.
Pegasus News Content partner - John Garcia's The Column
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