Hats are everywhere in the Rep's colorful production of Crowns. Big hats, purple hats, feathered hats -- it's almost like a Dr. Seuss book come to life. Regina Taylor's play (based on Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats, a book by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry) is an attempt to merge individual "hat" stories with church music and African dance. The production is visually sumptuous, owing in large part to costume designer Reggie Ray's stunning variety of hats (and the dresses that they complement). But it's dramatically thin, lacking in character development and conflict.
Crowns shares many characteristics with the musical Working (based on the Studs Terkel book): Both are adapted from works of nonfiction that chronicle the lives of everyday people. Both present a series of individual narratives that range from humorous to dramatic. Both plays try to create a main character to unify the stories, but neither succeeds in doing so. Crowns is ostensibly about Yolanda, a girl from Brooklyn who's sent to live with her grandmother in South Carolina, where she learns about the "church hat" culture and ultimately experiences salvation. Erin Cherry brings angry energy to her portrayal of Yolanda, but she talks so fast it's hard to understand her. Her beautiful singing voice provides one of the play's most haunting moments, as she laments, "I don't know how this dead soul can rise again." Unfortunately, her clash with her grandmother's way of life isn't given real space to develop; mostly she just sits looking bored while the other women talk about their hats. And in the play's climactic moment, she shows no real discovery as she starts to sing, "I've got joy like a fountain" -- they just seem to be words.
The musical numbers are the strongest elements in this production. The fine choreography by Mercedes Ellington ranges from tribal dances to hip-hop and is performed with verve by the talented cast. Jannie Jones scores comic points as the church soloist you wish wasn't singing "His Eye Is on the Sparrow," while the whole cast resonates on "Wade in the Water." Darryl Reuben Hall plays all the male roles and adds his fine voice and dance skills to many numbers. Excellent accompaniment by musical director Timothy Carpenter on keyboard and James A. Jackson II on a variety of drums keeps things at a brisk pace. Jackson also contributes to the compelling opening moments of African drumming and dancing.
With a few exceptions, most of the individual stories seem rushed, almost as if director Pamela Hunt told the actors, "This show runs an hour and 40 minutes with no intermission -- go faster!" Solid throughout the show, Chaundra Cameron manages to find the core of her character and holds the audience in the palm of her hand as she teaches us the "Hat Queen rules." (She also surprises with a humorous cheerleader jump in the middle of a story.) Denise M. Thimes is a strong presence, and her tale of buying a hat in a formerly "whites-only" store is a satisfying triumph. But like many of the larger, overly feathered hats, the play is in dire need of trimming. It devolves into a kind of Chicken Soup for the Hat-Lover's Soul, one story following another with no clear end in sight.
While it's exciting to see the Rep take on an African-American show, Crowns isn't a great fit. It's more like what you'd see at Historyonics Theatre: segments of true stories surrounded by musical interludes. In the end what this production lacks is soul. The eye candy is appealing, but the shallow script and the generally bland level of acting are disappointing. Crowns is a pretty hat, but instead of being a part of a stylish ensemble, it stands awkwardly by itself, hoping to entice window-shoppers to take it home.