Crowns logo.   A gospel, not Gospel, show with "hattitude".



Crowns:A Gospel Musical
presented by Skylight Music Theatre
Cabot Theater in The Broadway Theater Center

Ever gone to a service or program of traditional soul gospel music at a majority African-American church? Then you've likely seen them. Do you read the Sunday installments of the newspaper comic Curtis? Then you've seen the titular character and his little brother poke fun at them. And if you've watched Sanford and Son often enough, you've seen devout, feisty Aunt Esther wear what could pass for one whenever she visits her brother-in-law and nephew at the junk yard they operate.

The apparel in question is the church hats. The often elaborate and ostentatious head coverings not only provide warmth and keep distaff congregants in accord with some denominations' interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11:6, they bring to mind life stories from and and seem to empower their wearers. Therein is the premise of actress and playwright Regina Taylor's Crowns: A Gospel Musical, adapted from Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry's 2000 coffee table book, Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats. Though circulating widely since its Princeton. NJ debut in 2002, the one-act play made its first Milwaukee, Wisconsin, appearance this year at Skylight, which regularly brings fresh productions and classic operas, operettas and musicals to the city in the multiple-stage Broadway Theater Center.

The brother of teenage Brooklynite Yolanda has been shot dead. The murder prompts her parents to send their daughter to live with her aunt in rural North Carolina. The hip-hop fashion sense of the apparently unchurched Yolanda clashes with the decorum of her aunt, Mother Shaw, and four female friends representing a wide range of ages. Among them are a pastor's wife, a funeral director, a chastely flirtatious coquette and another especially enthusiastic gal who dresses up for Sunday mornings because that's her time to "meet the King." Regardless their varying experiences, they all share the  preoccupation with their crowns, a.k.a. church hats.

Crowns' plot looks to take place in the 1990s; each of the women Yolanda encounters reminisce on occurrences that appear to have place between the 1940s and '80s. So, the notion of American women of African origin expressing "hattitude" by donning head wear for fashion much as function on the one day of the week it makes sense to do so counter to their societal marginalization would seem especially palpable. 

Since a couple of the ladies Yolanda encounters have over 200, it makes sense that they follow them through significant life events, including courtship, marriage, major illness and death. Bereaved relatives would ask for their dearly departed to be buried in a favorite hat, so identified with hat-wearing was she that to see her in a casket without one woulds seem unnatural. The aforementioned coquette says that the only time she was allowed by administrators to not wear a hat off-campus while attending a college for black girls was when she was protesting racial segregation outside a storefront in the early '60s.

Yolanda remains nonplussed by all the attention given to hats, not to mention church; the latter is where the cast's only male, among several roles he has, plays a preacher in a kente cloth-lined black robe. But, in perhaps the most "show tune:"of Crowns' 23 songs, she eventually  longs to feel kinship with her aunt, her friends, and, it would seem, their house of praise. The play's music otherwise encompasses the hip-hop of Yolanda's opening declamation, but also blues, spirituals, European-American hymnody, jazz,  field hollers, ring shouts and West African drumming.

That last musical element relates to Crowns' espousal of a Christianity-or churchianity, really-that doesn't comport with biblical orthodoxy. After Yolanda opens the show with a rap about how she belongs in New York City, the actresses playing Mother Shaw, her friends and that lone male first appear as orishas, or manifestations of Yoruba folk religion's god, in an ecstatic dance sequence That  funeral director declares that she must have been a hat-wearer in a past life since she took so easily to wearing them as part of her profession's decorum. During a baptism scene, the pastor's wife declares that she who is taken to the river to get dunked isn't publicly witnessing to the faith and repentance granted to her by the Lord, but has thus "become one" with all that ever was and will be. And in her final monologue, Yolanda intimates that studying African history has led her to a belief in ancestral worship. And in the scenes taking place in church and discussing it, the Holy Spirit gets name-checked as the force that overcomes some parishoners into swooning. But Jesus Christ as the saving God incarnate? Alas, no.

The reasons for whatever mingling of folk religion with Christianity in the black American church there yet remains and its spiritual, political and overall cultural implications could probably encompass a doctoral dissertation or three. Suffice it to say that though Crowns may be a gospel musical, if not a Gospel music, most every other aspect's of Skylight's production engages. The female characters are well written representations of their individual life paths. The actors of both genders are vivid in their portrayals as the sets' colorful art direction. The music, produced by a mere two players, brims with vivacity throughout the myriad genres assayed. Theology and doctrine aside, and that may be a big aside to make for some, Skylight Theatre's production of Crowns is a theatrical triumph. 

-Jamie Lee Rake

Skylight's Crowns runs through March 26, 2016.