Crowns—the glory of women’s hats and lives

Regina Taylor’s adaptation of Michael Cunnningham and Craig Marberry’s story of women and the significance of their “church hats” brings to the stage of the Goodman Theatre a joyous production of music and inspiring life stories. The glorious hats symbolize the pride of African-American women and, as Taylor so well relates, the important events in their lives.

Every aspect of Crowns, from its stellar cast to the unique musical accompaniment, is musical theater at its very best. Yolanda (Desiré DuBose) comes unwillingly from Brooklyn to her grandmother, Mother Shaw (Tina Fabrique). Her rapper image contrasts sharply with the conservative ladies of the church as they attempt to improve a wild thing from the North. Her brother’s bright red cap represents her generation.

John Steven Crowley as the male characters, plays preacher, deceased husbands and caring fathers. Wanda (Gail Grate), Jeanette (Karan Kendrick) and Velma (Bernardine Mitchell) complete a cast that gives the production moments of perfection. Mitchell’s “His Eye Is On the Sparrow,” a gospel classic, builds to an incredible climax with her fellow actors literally carrying her to a chair.

One of my favorite shows, Quilters, uses the metaphor of quilt pieces to tell the stories of the lives of pioneer women. The hats of Crowns similarly provide the analogy that triggers memory of life experience. The rituals, often church-related, are marriage, baptism, and the finality of death and loss. At one point, chiffon fans of blue represent the waters of baptism, much as the silk panels showed the same rite in Quilters.

Music brings continuity and energy to Crowns, with e’Marcus Harper on keyboard and David Pleasant on percussion, traps, guitar and harmonica, as musicians of exceptional ability. Pleasant’s work is visually engrossing. Throughout the production, our eyes are constantly drawn to his energetic performance. Harper joins in many of the vocals, giving depth to the songs.

And then there are the hats. Many in the audience wore chapeaus rivaling those on stage. From the black and white of the opening numbers to feathers, chiffons and sequins, the “crowns” of these queens of African-American heritage proclaim their pride and vital importance to their community and the world.

You must see Crowns. Take a friend, organize a group, but go. The show runs through April 18, and tickets are available at the box office, (312) 443-3800. For group rates, call Kim Furganson at (312) 443-3820.

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