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Minneapolis by Elizabeth Weir

Crowns sets staid Guthrie audience
a-stompin' and a-clappin'

High hats and low hats, wide hats and show hats - hats to sing in, to frown or flirt in and, above all, hats to praise the Lord in; they're all there and then some on the Guthrie stage in Regina Taylor's Crowns, a gloriously celebratory collage of character, culture and gospel.

Taylor adapted Crowns from Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry's book of photographs, "Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats," and her play is deeply rooted in black history and the necessity to crown oneself in an inclement world. Her storyline might be slight, but the spirit of this joyful evening is mighty.

Rap-dancing Yolanda, played with urban sass by pretty Chandra Thomas, lives in Brooklyn with her mother and older brother. She gets in with a rough crowd, and her beloved brother ends up dead. Her mother sends Yolanda south to live with her aunt, Mother Shaw, a hat-wearing, church-going pillar of the community. At first resentful and lost, Yolanda gradually gets drawn into five women's wellsprings of millinery self-expression, as her aunt and friends go to church and remember their own mothers and grandmothers. Through them, Yolanda absorbs her culture and stakes out her own place within it.

But the story is not really Yolanda's; the story belongs to Southern black women and their maternal forebearers, reaching back culturally to distant Africa. In a fine ensemble performance, Timothy Bond lovingly directs a dream cast of seven as Crowns dips into and out of the lives of the five women and some of their men folk.

Crowns
Regina Marie Williams, Barbara D. Mills, Greta Oglesby,
T. Mychael Rambo, chandra thomas, Jevetta Steele,
Austene Van Williams-Clark

The cast have in common bags of attitude and voices as melodious and rich as mockingbirds in spring. On the Guthrie's large thrust stage, their voices are miked, but apart from seeing their discreet cheek mikes, I was hardly aware of the amplification in Scott Edwards' smooth sound design. And, my, how these women move and step and pump with rhythm.

Greta Oglesby, an actor who emanates warmth and strength, plays Yolanda's feisty and loving aunt. She wears white, her style somewhat restrained. Gussied up in purple, Jevetta Steele's Velma is a woman with a past. No hat can be decorated enough for Velma.

Barbara D. Mill's Deaconess Mabel imposes with sheer mass. Robed in fire engine red, she's the mistress of the one-liner. "I'd lend my children before I'd lend my hats," she announces and, as she stomps her way through "I could touch the hand" in church, she shouts, "I'm not ashamed to have a good time in the name of the Lord." Mabel wears authoritative hats, hats to scold in. Slender Austene Van Williams-Clark dances and flirts as elegant Jeanette, dressed in frothy blue, and Regina Marie Williams sasses as Wanda in yellow. She competes with her hats.

The lone man in the cast is the velvet-voiced T. Mychael Rambo. Most of the time, he plays the preacher, but with easy grace, he slips into glimpses of a simple and much-loved father, a departed husband and a sort of trickster-cum-magician who conjures the performance into being.

Just as present to the ensemble is Sanford Moore's soul-soaked music that floods the action with energy. He plays on stage with percussionist Marc Anderson.

Lighting designer Allen Lee Hughes projects the under scaffolding of the Brooklyn Bridge and light-infused rose windows to transform Christine Jones' simple set from New York to a Carolina. And Reggie Ray clearly had a ball designing matching Sunday hats and outfits, particularly the women's final architectural wonders. I say no more.

This Crowns is irresistible. If regular church were this much fun, I'd go more often.

Crowns January 10 - February 8, 2004. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays 7:00 p.m. Matinées on selected Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays, 1:00 p.m. $13 - $48. Guthrie Theater, 725, Vineland Place, Minneapolis. Call 612-377-2225. Online: www.guthrietheater.org.


Photo: T. Charles Erickson



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Elizabeth Weir



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