Remember back in 1998, when you were unabashedly watching VH1 Divas, and Aretha Franklin announced she was going to take the audience to church? Well, in an alternate universe where she’s still the queen but not quite so spotlight-selfish, she would’ve gladly traded Carey, Dion, and Twain for Crowns’ vocally scrumptious cast to comprise her backing choir. But these fine ladies and lone gentleman take care of TCB just fine sans Franklin in Regina Taylor’s musical adaptation of Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry’s photo-book, Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats now playing on San Pedro Playhouse’s main stage.
The book’s slim on plot, as you might guess, so Taylor sets the crux of her narrative squarely on the head of Brooklynite Yolanda, whose story is indistinct at best. The essentials are: Yolanda gets sent to live with relatives in the South and after listening to the women she encounters there sing and talk about hats for a long time, she converts to Christianity.
Sadly, Crowns is burdened with yada-yada: It’s as though Taylor felt obliged to incorporate as many quotes from the book as she could, and you can only really listen to people in great caps discuss how magnificent hats are for so long before you’re like, “Hey, you’re right! I’m going out to buy a fedora — let’s reconvene tomorrow.”
Crowns is a musical — complete with alum of SPP’s Dreamgirls and Aida for heaven’s sake — so its stretches of unnecessary dialogue (the exceptionally long discussion of being buried in a hat comes to mind) are torturous. It’s too divine to hear Crystal Sims-Evans sing “His Eye is on the Sparrow” and Antionette Murphy belt “One of Them,” to be dragged back down to earth
by Crowns’ schizophrenic script. Unfortunately, the characters are too nebulous, too like composites, for the redemption aspect of the play to make sense. So much gab about hats, so much gospel sung, and yet the two never really feel intertwined as a force that pushes Yolanda’s arc. She reacts to certain statements initially by throwing her hips, but when is she really affected and by whom? Who is she? When does the play stop being about something material (hats) and start being about something immaterial (salvation)?
That said, from an anthropological standpoint, it was extraordinarily interesting for me to become acquainted with the hat cult, to understand how the Christian concept of head-covering was appropriated and woven into the culture of the African people that slavery dragged here. But that connection isn’t as played up as I had expected, in spite of a few (on-beat) dance numbers and Stephen Montalvo’s hieroglyph-heavy set, which seems designed to continually invoke it.
From a fashion standpoint, it was fun to get lost for intervals musing on the special shadow certain hats create just over or across the eyes (I kept thinking of Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca). It is a very good-looking show. Nevertheless, it’s your ears you should be concentrating on when you experience Crowns: The cast’s cords out-fierce even their caps. Amen to that. •