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CROWNS is a celebration of “hattitude,” at Karamu

Roy Berko

(Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)

CROWNS, now in production at Karamu Theatre, is a musical which not only features gospel music, but takes a short meander into hip hop, while featuring storytelling, dance and cultural history.  All of this centers on the black female Southern community’s pride in their crowns, hats that have been “bought and paid for and all they have to do is wear them.”  They wear them with pride, understanding, and compassion.

Regina Taylor’s script, which is an adaptation of a book of photographs of church-going African American women by Michael Cunningham and a collection of oral histories by Craig Marberry, centers on Yolanda, a Brooklyn girl with attitude, who is sent down South to live with her grandmother, Mother Shaw, after her brother is murdered.  At first she rejects all things Southern…religion, speech patterns, clothing styles, and the tales of the women, who speak from experience about prejudice, discrimination, sit-ins, and how it took the civil rights movement to “get hats off their heads.”

The stories told range from an undertaker figuring out how to accommodate a dead woman’s wearing her favorite hat in her coffin to familial stories to the role of the church, faith, emotional support, and pastor, in the lives of these woman.  Through a tapestry of music, dance, singing and spoken voices of the women in her grandmother’s life, we observe the once negative Yolanda transcend her previous attitude and accept her place in her own culture.

Yolanda transitions from a baseball-cap-wearing “New Yowka,” to a reluctant hat wearing girl, to a person who has been taught the “hat queen rules” of etiquette.  She is embraced by the community, deals with her sadness and longing, and allows the traditions of her ancestors, as exemplified by the church women, to carry her through to baptism, her show of acceptance of the traditions.

Yolanda’s journey is summarized in her emotional speech, “The more I study Africa, the more I see that African Americans do very African things without even knowing it.  Adorning the head is one of these things . . . whether it’s the intricate braids or the distinct hairstyles or the beautiful hats we wear on Sundays.  We know inside that we’re queens.  And these are the crowns we wear.”

The strength of Karamu’s production, which is under the direction of Terrence Spivey, with musical direction by Sharolyn Ferebee, is the singing.  Though sometimes the overly loud drumming drowns out the singers, the voices are strong, the song interpretations often inspiring, and the dancing nicely integrated into the staging.

A strong acting and vocal performance by Joyce Linzy, as Mother Shaw, well-keyed humor and dynamic singing by Cherlie McElroy-Burch, and nuanced characterizations by Christina Johnson and Nina Jones-Respress, help develop the concept.

Jonah Lathan and Dominique Paramour nicely interpret the modern dance interludes.  Nathan Lilly has a strong singing voice and does a nice job of developing each of the multiple characters he portrays, especially the Bible-thumping preacher.

Unfortunately, though she has some nice moments, Imani Jackson doesn’t display the acting depth to develop the needed attitude adjustment of Yolanda.

The staging is often confusing.  Straight lines, performers blocking each other from the view of the audience, and some questionable vignette interpretations, draw away from the many strengths of the script.

The intermissionless production, which runs a little under two hours, could have used some faster pacing and the script cut as the stories and dance make their point long before the final blackout.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  CROWNS tells an important story of perseverance and faith among the women of the Southern African American community, as represented by their “hatitude.”  The Karamu production, which has some strong performances, is somewhat tarnished by some directorial decisions, but is worth seeing.

CROWNS continues through June 16 at Karamu, 2355 East 89th Street, which has a fenced, guarded and lighted parking lot adjacent to the theatre, and provides free parking.  For ticket information call 216-795-7077.