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  • Writer's pictureAnthony Chase

Crowns at MusicalFare

Review by ANTHONY CHASE


A young Black woman in hip hop clothes and a baseball cap surrounded by five Black women dancing.
The cast of "Crowns" at MusicalFare

The genius of MusicalFare was to cast six musical theater leading ladies as the ensemble for their production of Crowns.  Danielle N. Green, Latosha Jennings, Janaé Leonard, Zhanna Reed, Ember Tate-Steele, and Davida Evette Tolbert. 

 

The characters are given names and narrate fragments of their lives, but this show is not driven by a plot.  Crowns is a joyful musical celebrating the traditions and culture of African American women through the hats they wear to church. Written by Regina Taylor and based on the book by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry, the show illustrates how a hat is far more than a fashion accessory in the African American community.


The framing device is the story of a teenaged Brooklyn girl named Yolanda, played by Leonard, who is sent to stay with her aunt in the South after her brother is killed. Initially skeptical of customs of smalltown life, Yolanda slowly comes to appreciate her aunt’s mindful ways. The girl has always defined herself through her clothes, and she makes a clear transition between a cherished hat that had belonged to her brother and the hats her aunt wears.  The rest of the show provides Yolanda’s aunt, played with loving severity by Latosha Jennings, and the other ladies of the congregation, the opportunity to share their life experiences through anecdotes and songs. The hat that obsess these women are revealed to represent beauty, pride, dignity and resistance to oppression.


Leonard’s cheerful naivete wins us to Yolanda’s side immediately. We recognize everyone’s strict but loving grandmother in Jennings as Mother Shaw, the woman with the most fabulous voice in the company.  She inspires us to sit up, especially with gospel music. Green gives an amusingly oversized performance as Velma, a woman who favors uncommonly flamboyant hats. Reed, runs the gamut from urbane fashion to the dignity of extreme old age in an excellent performance. Tate-Steele, who always exudes fabulous stage-presence, is again terrific on this occasion. Tolbert, a born clown is irresistible as Mabel, the minister’s wife, making hay by detailing all the privileges and anxieties the role requires. Preston Brown, keeps up with the ladies admirably in all the male roles. 


Music director Karen E. Saxon, who has done fine work here, sometimes joins the onstage action.  Choreography by Naila Ansari is excellent. Direction by Thembi Duncan has delivered a show that never flags and in which each person’s individuality shines through.


Phylicia Robinson Dove’s costumes, hair and wigs give Crowns a fabulous look. I did not see a specific credit for millinery, which means the designer found and or built all the hats that dominate the show delightfully.


Crowns has undeniable heart and vivacity, as it entertainingly honors the heritage of hats and the passage of African American traditions from generation to generation.

 


a black woman in a fabulous hat stands and tells a story to seated black women in a church setting
Davida Evette Tolbert expounds upon hats and the burdens of being the minister's wife in "Crowns"

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