Avery Sommers
A soulful and uplifting show is on the mainstage at City Theatre. Regina Taylor's Crowns explores black history through stories and vignettes of Southern black women. The idea of expressing oneself through the wearing of hats is passed along from character to character, but other themes are the power of faith, inner strength and cultural identity. The framework is the story of Yolanda, a young black woman who has moved to the south from Brooklyn after her brother has been killed. A circle of women relatives tell their stories in order to bring Yolanda the support she is unaware that she needs. Yolanda is at first skeptical and resistant, but eventually feels in her heart the power of these women.

Crowns is based on Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry's book, Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats, and was commissioned by the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, NJ. Taylor utilizes several styles of music - from rap to jazz, with a healthy dose of gospel - to augment the storytelling. It is an inspirational play and clearly resounds with the audience.

A fine cast has been assembled for this production. CMU drama student Khaliah Adams provides a delightful Yolanda. She is a charming and natural actress with a clear, strong voice. The other woman are incredibly talented singing actresses and bring conviction to the characters: Inga Ballard (Mabel), Maria Becoates Bey (Velma), Etta Cox (Wanda), Linda Haston (Jeannette), and Avery Sommers (Mother Shaw). These self-professed "hat queens" show the pride of "adorning oneself for worship." Even when blacks had few opportunities to gather socially, the church was a place they could join together to express themselves through worship, song and through their clothing. As one character states, "sometimes (the hats) reveal and sometimes they conceal," but women's hats were (and are) a source of pride and expression through an unspoken language.

As the sole male cast member, Garbie Dukes does a great job portraying all of the men in the stories - the good and the bad. Music Director/Accompanist Cliff Barnes, Jr. and percussionist James T. Johnson, III provide superb musical support for all of the diverse songs, supported by musical supervision by Thomas Wesley Douglas. Director Timothy Douglas has provided a fast-paced production that never stalls, and, with the fine work of choreographer Greer A. Reed, has guided this cast to make the best use of the three-sided stage. The connection with the audience is very strong.

The hats and costumes by Susan Tsu are excellent: perfectly designed for the stories and fitting the performers very well. Tony Ferrieri's churchlike set is appropriate in size and design.

Crowns runs through October 16 at City Theatre's mainstage. For performance and ticket information, call 412-431-CITY or visit

Photo: John Schisler

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