Theater Review - Hat trick

Alliance hat show is nearly a crowning achievement

Playwright/director Regina Taylor clearly put on her thinking cap to turn Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry's nonfiction book Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats into a theatrical evening.

The Alliance Theatre's flamboyant production finds that Taylor's Crowns doesn't fit any specific genre, but is a curious hybrid of oral history, gospel musical, church service and fashion show. Crowns includes many moments that make your spirit soar, and others that leave you interested but detached.

For our entry into the entwined cultures of African-American church culture and hat couture, Taylor composes a loose plot to hang the play on. After the murder of her brother, Brooklyn teenager Yolanda (Desire Dubose) moves to her grandmother's home in South Carolina. While Yolanda wears a red baseball cap in her brother's memory, Mother Shaw (Tina Fabrique) teaches her not just about church hats, but about her roots.

For African-American women, church hats can represent personal pride, self-expression and family devotion. Costume designer Emilio Sosa provides countless straw hats, pillboxes, feathered hats and head-wraps, which the cast uses as everything from status symbols to seductive props. In the play's most moving moments, hats offer insights into female relationships with their men, other women and even God.

Yolanda learns from five "hat queens," who are all imperious in their own ways. Fabrique is the spiritual nurturer, Atlanta's Bernardine Mitchell the earthy sensualist, Karan Kendrick the graceful athlete, Gail Grate the judgmental fuss-budget and Lynda Gravatt the amusingly bossy intimidator. It's a toss-up whether Gravatt or Mitchell is Crowns' funniest comedienne, with Gravatt displaying superb comic timing during her sermons, while Mitchell inspires huge laughs as an overly enthusiastic church singer.

Among such larger-than-life presences, Dubose proves the least interesting, in part because the play requires Yolanda to spend so much time pouting petulantly. Still, Dubose sings like an angel and dances like a dervish.

With so much diva-tude on display, a play would need exceptionally talented men to upstage them — and Crowns has them. In all the male roles, John Steven Crowley reveals an astonishing versatility and gift for humor. He's a big man but proves capable of surprising delicacy, and when, as the preacher, he leads the audience in a hymn, he bounces on his heels as if he's weightless.

Even more remarkable is percussionist David Pleasant, who's fully visible at the bottom of the right aisle. When he claps, pounds his feet, beats tambourines and shouts in rhythm, it's like seeing the entire ensemble of Stomp in one person. Pleasant alone is worth the price of a ticket, and his rhythmic contributions make numbers like the African-style dance "Ring Shout" into ecstatic experiences.

Crowns' musical moments can imaginatively employ a fragment of a famous hymn like "Wade in the Water" or "Just a Closer Walk With Thee," although simply presenting the song in its entirety would be more conventionally satisfying. At times, Crowns merely feels like Taylor is putting sociological research on stage without truly dramatizing it. Yolanda develops not through a conventional plot, but as both witness and participant to a series of highly symbolic rituals, including marriage, baptism and funeral.

And for a few stretches, Crowns feels like it's only about hats, telling you more than you really want or need to know. Riccardo Hernandez's set doesn't help, looking too deluxe for the play's down-home setting. With its columnar hat racks and curtains bearing the word "crowns" in endless patterns, it looks like the lobby of an upscale department store.

Nevertheless, Crowns turns out to be, paradoxically, a cerebral crowd-pleaser, with the actors generating cheerful chemistry between each other and the clapping-along audience. The play in its entirety doesn't live up to its numerous highlights, but the Alliance still has plenty to brag about, thanks to the stars in its Crowns.