I enjoyed Crowns most when I closed my eyes and just listened. The music -- gospel songs and spirituals, church music with just a touch of rap -- includes such well-known pieces as "His Eye Is on the Sparrow" and "When the Saints Go Marchin' In," as well as several less familiar songs, and it is just as lively, moving and rousing as you'd expect, played with élan by pianist Ron Metcalf and percussionist Sherman Arnold. Director Kent Gash has assembled a group of performers with voices of extraordinary range, power and sweetness. In addition, they're all stylish and talented actors, capable of both humor and pathos. But there's no there there. No play.
Crowns is basically a concept. It's like those magazines, TV shows or marketing programs that evolve around the idea of "Victoriana" or "Women's Power" or "Finding Yourself" or -- heaven help us -- "Menopause." It relies on a generalized, not-too-closely scrutinized emotional reaction from the viewer. If the flurry of words, images, video, action or music is bright and colorful enough, if a sufficient number of code words get released -- pride, Africa, roots, community -- perhaps no one will notice that there's no fortune in this cookie.
This particular concept comes from a book of photographs and quotes called Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats, assembled by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry. The African-American ritual of dressing up for church is a potent and evocative one. Many years ago, I was in treatment for breast cancer, and a friend, wanting to help me heal, took me to a service of the Church of God in Christ. I was struck by how beautifully -- how gorgeously -- everyone was dressed: little boys in suits; girls wearing frilly dresses and white stockings, with ribbons and barrettes in their hair; ushers in white gloves. I wrote about the experience later, calling one dress "the glossy pink of the inside of a shell" and describing a purple one that was "ruched, shirred and pleated around curves that gleamed proudly, sumptuously." And, of course, I noticed the hats: "a black lace fan, perched sideways," "a black-and-white striped whirligig," "a number of tiny lace and flower creations." Clearly, there's a story to be told about these wonderful adornments, a story about African tradition married to contemporary pride and vanity, about an oppressed people who found solace and spirit in church, about the hat as both an assertion of individuality and a humble tribute to God. But ideas alone can't sustain an evening of theater. They need to be married to plot and dialogue.
Crowns begins when a young girl from Brooklyn, Yolanda (the rich-voiced Uzo Aduba), loses her brother to violence. Half mad with grief, she is shipped off to stay with her grandmother, Mother Shaw (a brilliant performance by Barbara D. Mills), in Darlington, South Carolina. Mother Shaw is a local monument, a woman of immense power and dignity who also sports a sly sense of humor. Through Mother Shaw, Yolanda meets Mabel, Velma, Wanda and Jeanette (acted by -- in order -- B.J. Crosby, Gretha Boston, Rosa Curry and Karole Foreman), all of whom have stories to share about life, faith and hats. There's also the Man -- husband, brother, preacher as needed -- played with aplomb by C. E. Smith. At first alienated and angry, Yolanda -- whose headgear is a sideways baseball cap -- comes to appreciate the women's strength, their work on behalf of civil rights, the community they form.
Intended as a tapestry of voices and songs, the play is structured like a church service. Church services are inherently theatrical, but they're also very predictable in tone. What you get is weeping, exhortation and praise. The dialogue in Crowns never rises above the level of a Hallmark card, and the characters are symbols rather than people. They don't interact much. They testify. They sing. And as they do, Yolanda watches. She watches skeptically. She watches with mild interest. She breaks down and weeps as she watches. And finally, she's swept away on a tide of emotion, converted and baptized with the help of one of those flowing blue pieces of fabric that always signify water in musicals. But to what has she converted? The community? Jesus? Her roots? Herself? The fact that the answer is "all of these" reveals the vagueness of the enterprise.
You need only compare Yolanda's metaphoric baptism to the scene in August Wilson's Gem of the Ocean when Aunt Ester creates an imaginary sea voyage for Citizen to the City of Bones to understand how facile and unimaginative this play is.
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