"This soul I have -- the world didn't give it to me. The world didn't give it, so the world can't take it away." A brilliant epigram, told in the same sly, joyful, irrefutable style.
Both these quotes are from Crowns by Regina Taylor, currently on the boards at the Anthony Bean Community Theater (and directed by the eponymous Mr. Bean). The second quote is a chorus from one of those gospel songs that lift your heart and tap into some deep, mysterious source of consolation.
Crowns is a celebration of African-American church ladies and their hats. The story begins with Yolanda (Anastacia Scott), a hip-hop waif from Brooklyn who wears a black jumpsuit and a baseball cap and tells her story in rap. Her brother was shot by a friend, so she has been sent South to her grandmother, the formidable Mother Shaw (Patricia McGuire-Hill), to learn where she "belongs." Here she falls under the influence of Mother Shaw's Sunday morning matrons and their magnificent millinery. Wanda (Gail Glapion), Jeanette (Donna King), Mabel (Dorshena Pittman) and Velma (Althea Williams) take us through seven scenes connected to church rituals: procession, morning service, wedding, funeral, baptism, etc. We also follow some of Yolanda's travails. And there is a glance at the civil rights movement and the (technical) end of segregation.
Much of the play consists of short monologues, and almost all of the monologues are related in some way to hats. In the anecdote about civil rights, for instance, Mother Shaw tells about going into a store that was formerly "for whites only" and buying herself a hat. Some of these oral histories are funny, some are moving. The high points of the evening, however, are musical. All the women, solo and ensemble, have you in the palm of their hands with their soulful hymns, as does the versatile Leo Jones, who plays all the male roles, sings all the male parts and choreographed the dances. Jeremi Crump and an excellent four-piece band provide the instrumentals, as well as tastefully underscoring the action.
It's hard not to see a talented group of black women doing a presentational, free-form piece and not think of Colored Girls. For all its fine moments, Crowns suffers from the comparison, for Regina Taylor's script is diffuse and repetitive. Too many anecdotes end, not with a bang but a whimper. Too often, one waits for a larger insight that never comes. If the show was half as long, it would be twice as good. Nonetheless, despite the lulls, when Crowns is good, it's very, very good.
Patrick Pellone and Bob Walker designed the effective set. A tip of the hat to Lyn Caliva for the lighting and Trish McLain for the costumes. And many thanks to the "Hat Queens" for the sensational chapeaux.
Some quick notes about the recent DramaRama. As I fought my way out of the packed Bank One theater into the packed lobby, I remembered a sci-fi film about a molecule that regularly doubled in size and would, within a month, grow so large that the earth would develop a wobble and go careening in the sun. DramaRama directors Richard Read and R.J. Tsarov are doing a remarkable job with the festival, but is it worth risking the destruction of the planet? Where will it all end?
A few highlights. Jose Torres Tama cursing his prop stove lighters in Spanish when they refused to light -- and thereby turning an awkward moment into marvelous bit of humor amid his somber Letters to an Invisible Father. Sean Patterson and Jennifer Lindsey finally overcoming their shyness and almost working up the nerve to rub beaks (they were Egyptian vultures!) in Brian Sands' Eat Pudding. Hapless Gary Rucker pursued by the Evil Empire of the Mouse in Jim Fitzmorris' The Sons of Mickey. And finally, like some poisonous orchid that blooms only in the light of the full moon, R. J. Tsarov's bleakly comic hallucination about sleaze-bag pitchmen: Moth Eaten. Kevin Fricke, Travis Acosta and Eric Del Carlo played variations of this endearing specimen of masculinity. The story begins with a sultry-voiced come-on from a dubious moth trap company and ends with a cancer-ridden child whose disease inconveniences a salesman's tawdry sexual adventures. Leave 'em laughin', R.J.
Of the many other intriguing offerings, I mostly regret not seeing Dog and Pony's Burn, K-Doe, Burn, featuring Harold Evans as the famous Ernie K-Doe manikin. Now, there's an idea to conjure with.
- Tell it, Sister: Mabel (Dorshena Pittman) and Mother Shaw (Patricia McGuire-Hill) testify in Anthony Bean's current staging of Crowns.