Regina Taylor’s exuberant musical Crowns, which has opened a four-week run at the Repertory Theater of St. Louis, is a celebration of the strength and pride of southern African-American women, using their wonderfully elaborate churchgoing hats as an encompassing metaphor for the joy they find in their womanhood and in their vigorous – sometimes even boisterous – faith. Based on the book "Crowns: Portraits of Black Woman in Church Hats," with photographs by Michael Cunningham and first-person narratives gathered and edited by Craig Marberry, Miss Taylor’s script has only vestiges of a plot, but strings together one brilliantly choreographed and powerfully sung gospel number after another, interspersed with monologues in which the women talk about their lives and about their hats with equal candor and enthusiasm.
Like Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide ..., to which the first scene of this production pays specific homage in choreography as well as in costuming, Crowns is a work of poetry, covering an enormous range of styles from hip-hop to the lyrics of traditional gospel songs. Appropriately, there is a great deal of wordplay and occasionally the kind of gently taunting banter that is a feminine version of the cutting and aggressive masculine word-war that used to be called “playing the dozens.”
The one-act work is framed by the presence of a tough-talking young city girl from the North, Yolanda, whose beloved brother has been killed in gang-related violence. Her mother has sent her “down home” to South Carolina to live with her grandmother, Mother Shaw, and her four aunts, partly to escape the immediate consequences of her brother’s death and partly, we surmise, to re-connect with her roots. If Mrs. Taylor’s script has a weakness, it is that Yolanda and her growth toward spiritual awakening are backgrounded almost immediately and really don’t regain our attention until very near the end of the show. The problem with this is that we don’t follow the processes of thought and emotion that lead her to accept the values of her new-found family, and her conversion ultimately seems almost mechanical.
In the meantime, we watch the celebrations of the five women, assisted by various men, ranging from a Griot preacher to a long-suffering husband, all played with reckless and joyful abandon by a single actor. The women, who are schoolteachers, laundresses, social workers and preachers’ wives, but above all sisters in the figurative as well as in the literal sense, talk, sing and dance about their work and their lives, about their faith in the Lord, and always about their hats. In one of the evening’s most telling moments, Mother Shaw reminds the women and the audience that “our crowns are bought and paid for; all we have to do is wear them,” a moving testimonial to the sacrifices these women have made. The singing and dancing are brilliant, the monologues are alternately hilarious and profound, and the hats are colorful and as poetic in their own way as Miss Taylor’s words.
The Repertory Theater of St. Louis has assembled a wonderful ensemble cast for this production; among them, Stacie Precia, as Jeanette, demonstrates an especially effective voice, and Darryl Rubin Hall, as all of the various men, gives a marvelously energetic performance. But the most satisfying part of the evening for St. Louis audiences is the appearance, finally, on the Rep Mainstage, of the incomparable Denise Thimes, as Mother Shaw. Miss Thimes sings gospel as well as she sings jazz, and that is very high praise indeed. She is truly one of St. Louis’s cultural treasures, as audiences of the St. Louis Black Repertory Company have known for years, and her performance in Crowns is nothing short of magnificent.
James A. Jackson, on percussion, and musical director Timothy W. Carpenter, on keyboards, provide solid support for the cast, and Hugh Landwehr’s set, lit by Phil Monat and lit up by Reggie Ray’s astonishing costumes, adds to the brilliance of the effect.
Crowns will run through April 15 on the mainstage at the Repertory Theater of St. Louis. For tickets and performance information, call 314-968-4925 or visit www.repstl.org.