A marvelously soul-stirring production of Regina Taylor’s off-Broadway spiritual play-with-music “Crowns” concludes the Human Race Theatre Company’s 2014-15 season at the Loft Theatre.
Adapted from the book of the same name by photographer Michael Cunningham and journalist Craig Marberry, “Crowns” is a fascinating, humorous, potent and celebratory portal into the African-American custom of church hats. Generations of African-American women, harkening to African tradition, have valued and taken pride in wearing their finest, most flamboyant hats to Sunday service, particularly based on biblical statutes written by Apostle Paul in I Corinthians 11 (“But any woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered disgraces her head… For this reason a woman should have a symbol of authority on her head…”).
Cunningham and Marberry’s flavorful sources (over 50 women were interviewed) provide an engaging hook for Taylor, who weaves a fluid narrative arc from the earthy interviews detailing the comedic (“I’d lend my children before I’d lend my hats. My hats know their way home”) and introspective (“Our hats have already been bought and paid for. All we have to do is wear them”). By and large, Taylor transforms an honest, reflective look at women and fashion into a deeper examination of cultural identity, generational friction and the absorbing power of faith.
In this breezy tale, sharply co-directed by Dayton Contemporary Dance Company artistic director Debbie Blunden-Diggs and Human Race founding resident artist Scott Stoney, troubled Brooklyn teenager Yolanda (a terrifically tough and scarred Monette McKay) is grudgingly sent to live with her churchgoing grandmother Mother Shaw (a fabulous, vocally strong Joilet F. Harris) in Darlington, South Carolina following the death of her brother. The angst-filled, streetwise Yolanda strongly resists her new Southern surroundings, but with perceptive assistance from Mother Shaw and her gaggle of fussy church lady friends, Yolanda, caught between two worlds, comes to terms with the pain of her past and accepts a brighter future guided by God.
In addition to Harris (responsible for a rousing “I Am On the Battlefield”) and McKay, Blunden-Diggs and Stoney’s incredible cast of actor-singers fulfill their duties with astounding ease. Jasmine Easler, a true knockout this season at Wright State University, commands attention as the emotional, soul-searching Velma as she fervently sings “His Eye Is On The Sparrow” with searing, roof-raising passion. As the sophisticated Wanda, Joy Lynn Jacobs provides a wonderful lesson in hat etiquette. As the gentle Jeanette, former DCDC member Debra Walton, last seen at the Race in “Children of Eden,” performs a beautiful praise dance during “Oh Lord I’m Waitin’ On You,” one of many numbers expertly choreographed with personality and power by Blunden-Diggs. Torie Wiggins, a hoot this season in the Race’s productions of “Mame” and “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” brings the hilarity once again as sassy preacher’s wife Mabel, who shares important advice on how to handle and approach a Hat Queen. David Jennings, responsible for all the male roles, terrifically embodies preachers, fathers and husbands, particularly delivering a dynamic, tear-jerking rendition of the gospel standard “If I Can Help Somebody.”
The presentation’s high quality winningly extends to its technical team. Scenic designer Tamara L. Honesty supplies an excellent assortment of sliding panels, swivel racks and stained glass projections. David M. Covach’s colorfully attractive costumes are vivid and pay homage to African ancestry. Musical director Scot Woolley provides superb, joyful piano accompaniment. The contributions of lighting designer John Rensel and sound designer Jay Brunner (incorporating Nigerian music) are equally effective.
Even if you don’t consider yourself remotely religious or have never been curious about African-American women in church hats, you’re bound to find something eye-opening or relatable within the universal context of this production, clearly one of the best shows of the season. Can I get an Amen?
“Crowns” continues through June 28 in the Loft Theatre of the Metropolitan Arts Center, 126 N. Main St., Dayton. Performances are Wednesday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Tuesday at 7 p.m.; and Sunday at 2 p.m. Act 1: 55 minutes; Act 2: 40 minutes. Also, Human Race resident artist Alan Bomar Jones also performs the male roles. Tickets are $40-$50, but discounts are available. For tickets or more information, call Ticket Center Stage at (937) 228-3630 or visit www.ticketcenterstage.com or www.humanracetheatre.org.