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Theater review: 'Crowns' at Pasadena Playhouse

July 13, 2009 |  3:15 pm

Crowns 1 

For those who attended the opening of “Crowns” at Pasadena Playhouse on Sunday, you needn’t have felt too bad if you missed Mass earlier in the day. This celebration of African American women and their proud tradition of hats provides enough church fervor to light up a thousand high holy days.

A theatrical work by playwright Regina Taylor that combines cultural studies, oral testimony and evangelical preaching, “Crowns” is based on the coffee-table book “Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats” by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry. And the show, part gospel musical, part historical sermon, is indeed a milliner’s dream. Not only do the women don different chapeaus for different moods, but the set is lined with hanging headgear ranging from a modest pew pillbox to an Aretha Franklin bird cage.

This presentation of Taylor’s 2002 play is a co-production between Pasadena Playhouse and Ebony Repertory Theatre, whose inaugural production last fall of August Wilson’s “Two Trains Running” succeed by all accounts in setting a high bar for the new venue. Ebony Rep artistic director Israel Hicks, who staged that acclaimed revival, lends an assured directorial hand to "Crowns" — one that Wilson, whose plays magisterially heeded James Baldwin’s call for “a profound articulation of the black tradition,” would no doubt have heartily applauded.

Crowns 2 As drama, this festival of flamboyant caps is only intermittently effective, but as a communion between actors and audience wanting to deepen their appreciation of this particularly freighted history of hat-wearing, the work has a power that extends beyond its artistic level. “Crowns” is often sentimental. And the setup of a Brooklyn teen being sent to live with her grandmother in the South after her brother is fatally shot can seem like a lumbering contrivance.

But when the performers swan around in their churchgoing finery, holding themselves with the extra dignity conferred by the stylish nests perched atop their heads, the lackluster plot dissolves into a thrilling ritual. Willing participation in the rhapsodic atmosphere isn’t required, but it will surely enhance your experience, especially if you’re seated next to someone flailing about in an incautious Easter bonnet.
Yolanda (Angela Wildflower Polk) is the streetwise high school rebel, garbed in her gangster best, who’s carted away to her grandma’s after tragedy strikes her urban home. Mother Shaw (Paula Kelly), a living link to the generations that have passed, initiates her not-particularly-interested granddaughter into the inherited symbolism of her wardrobe practices.

“Church was the only place slaves were allowed to congregate,” Mother Shaw explains. “So if you had something you wanted to show off and be in style, you’d wear it to church.”

The show, an examination of what lies behind this brand of showboating, is divided into seven scenes, all of them religiously inflected and several mimicking actual church services. Hymns and spirituals are sung by the cast as though their souls are truly awakening. And Keith Young’s choreography, though modestly contained, erupts occasionally in a revivalist mania that is contagious in its dynamism.

There’s one male performer, Clinton Derricks-Carroll, in the seven-person cast, and he takes on a variety of roles, most notably that of a preacher who chides the women for their vanity before singing a rousing rendition of “If I Could Touch the Hem of His Garment.” Derricks-Carroll has that charismatic force that could get a congregation on its feet.

Matching his religious ecstasy is Sharon Catherine Blanks who plays an otherwise shy woman who’s moved to sing out to the Lord each Sunday. Her offering of “His Eye is On the Sparrow” keeps rising in volume, almost incredibly, as the spirit accelerates within her.

Vanessa Bell Calloway and Suzzanne Douglas demonstrate the various subtleties of hat wearing, the seductive cocking to one side and the posture needed to convey the item’s full grace. And Ann Weldon, playing a no-nonsense preacher’s wife, adds earthly ballast to the group, reminding that you can admire her look from a distance, but “never touch my hat.”

These lessons in what’s referred to as “hattitude” are far more entrancing than the succession of grief-stricken tales, vaguely reminiscent of one of Ntozake Shange’s choreopoems. The problem is that the monochrome words Taylor, a first-rate actress herself who sticks to writing here, assembles are no match for the vibrant pageant riding aloft Linda Twine and David Pleasant’s original musical arrangements. A visible trio, led by pianist Eric Scott Reed and featuring Derf Reklaw (percussion) and Trevor Ware (bass) sweep us helplessly into a soundscape where sensibility trumps literary sense.
Dana Rebecca Wood's costumes tastefully enhance the hat conceptions she designed for these unabashed crown addicts. And if Edward E. Haynes Jr.’s scenic design seems a bit drab color-wise, a bland background is obviously a must when you have a virtual Noah’s ark of haberdashery to present.

“Crowns” has patches when dramatic interest stalls and the heavier emotions can seem unearned— problems that the religiosity of the work can’t entirely cover up. But with necks that can “vogue” better than most supermodels, these well-adorned women know how to excite our imagination in a majestic clothing choice that connects to their centuries-long heritage of struggle.

-- Charles McNulty

"Crowns," Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends: Aug. 16. $32-$67. (626) 356-7529. Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes.

Photo: Top: Sharon Catherine Blanks and Suzzanne Douglas.  Bottom: Paula Kelly and Angela Wildflower Polk. Credit: Ringo H.W. Chiu / Los Angeles Times