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ANNA HOLLOWAY THEATER REVIEW: Impressive and evocative 'Crowns'

There was a time when the only opportunity for most African-American women to dress up was Sunday, each outfit crowned with a head covering as prescribed in I Corinthians 11:16. Elaborate hats, often with matching accessories, are still commonly worn by women in traditional black church communities. These are the “Crowns”—signifiers of a long assailed and closely guarded regal status—of Regina Taylor’s play with music. 

The professional regional premiere of “Crowns,” based on the book of photographs and stories by Michael Cunningham and Craig Mayberry, is currently playing at Lyric on the Plaza. This lush and layered production invites us to come in and set a spell with the lives of southern black women as they reveal and revel in the meaning and value invested in the head-dresses they wear to church.

Director W. Jerome Stevenson has created a rich rendition of the women and their stories, their songs, and their lives of love and sorrow, always mediated by faith. In this, he has worked with a gifted cast and a team of responsive designers, all of whose efforts elegantly support the story played out on the Lyric stage. All of the songs are traditional gospel tunes, interwoven in the tale.

Yolanda, a young New Yorker, has been sent south to her grandmother after the shooting death of her brother.  Coming into the southern church traditions from what is essentially a foreign land, she hears and learns from the stories of the women in her orbit.  We see the stories of survival in the face of white oppression, male oppression, economic oppression—all deeply and floridly colored by the textures and textiles of the Sunday clothes and the complex culture of Sunday hats that decorate these women’s lives.

As Yolanda, Ashley Marie Arnold was powerfully resistant and stubborn—the classic responses of youth to the demands of other generations.  It is her job to carry the arch of the show—Yolanda is the one who makes strides by the end—and Arnold carries the weight of a story of grief and growth with impetuous grace.

M. Denise Lee delivered a strong and resilient woman in the role of Mother Shaw, Yolanda’s grandmother. She is tasked with teaching Yolanda, and through her, the audience, about the history and etiquette of wearing and bearing the crown of an African-American woman. Lee invokes that utterly regal sense of a queen who has been beaten and remains unbroken.  She is teaching serenity, splendor, survival.

Kizzie Ledbetter played Mabel, the preacher’s wife and community example. Ledbetter gave Mabel a conservative sass that empowered her to take her husband, and anyone else, down a notch when needed and lift them up just as easily—with a little vinegar for garnish.

Kimberly M. Oliver was the young matron Velma, who takes an interest in Yolanda’s attempts to adapt to her new culture. Nakeisha McGee and Delanie Phillips Brewer were Jeannette and Wanda, each bringing their own stories of power, struggle, and therapeutic millinery. All three actors delineated the women and their lives with sharp, and deftly colored strokes.

Covering all the men in their lives, Derrick Cobey morphed from father to husband, grandfather to preacher, and made each one distinct. 

All of the cast were subtly supported by music director Sandra Thompson on the keyboard; the deft touch of choreographer Hui Cha Poos was almost invisible, so natural were the movement sequences. Scenic design by Uldarico Sarmiento was spare and evocative, with dis-integrating walls that could have been historic memory or future decay. The set suggested any place of history and of working folk your mind might care to provide—a broken wall, an old building, a clapboard church. Weston Wilkerson’s lights moved from indoors to outdoors to inside the mind—all while addressing the range of textures and tones moving across the space. Jeffrey Meek’s costumes were symphonies of color; each woman had her own palette and her own magnificent crown.

“Crowns” is a brilliant experience of one aspect of African American cultural reality, coming from the perspective of strong and resilient women. Playing at the Plaza District theatre through Feb. 25, curtain times are 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For tickets and information, call 405-524-9312 or check the website at 

Anna Holloway

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