The cast of CROWNS at the Henegar Center. Photo by Dana Niemeier
By JOAN TADDIE
Brevard Culture Theater Critic
Music, song and hand-clapping both joyful and sorrowful from both stage and audience, fill the intimate Upstairs at the Henegar theater in its production of “Crowns.”
There are also a whole lot of hats.
Playwright and award winning actress Regina Taylor took the idea for her musical from the book “Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats” by Craig Marberry and Michael Cunningham. The award winning 2002 musical turns the 50 women in the book into six composite women. Its story revolves around a young woman from Brooklyn who loses her brother to street violence and is sent to live with her grandmother in South Carolina.
The Henegar’s production begins with a drummer (Jordan Fuqua) playing an electrifying African rhythmic piece on a beautiful African drum. At the last resounding beat, streetwise, angry and grieving 17-year-old Yolanda (Shanteria Strowbridge) performs the powerful rap “Where I Belong.” Yolanda expresses rage, anguish, and heartbreak after losing her brother who has been shot and killed.
To help Yolanda, who feels isolated, adjust to her new home, her grandmother, “Mother Shaw” introduces Yolanda to her church lady friends, all “hat queens” some owning more than 100 hats – their “crowns.”
Influenced through generations by the African tradition of adorning the head for worship, the women proudly wear their hats to church each Sunday. At first, Yolanda rejects the women, but eventually finds common ground with each “hat queen” as she listens to their stories of struggle and joy.
In his skillful and loving direction, Keenan Carver has put together an exceptional cast. Mother Shaw (Carol Chisolm) is the dominant hat queen, effortlessly leading the congregation in her strong and spirited voice through gospel numbers such as “In the Morning” and “Battlefield.”
Velma (Nina Jones) definitely has “hattitude!” As the community’s funeral director, Jones delivers lines smoothly and naturally with grace, humor and wonderful voice. Her powerful emotional rendition of “Eye On the Sparrow,” is a show-stopper.
Wanda (Nichole Savage) loves her grandmother’s hats, especially the fox fur hat with the head of the fox still attached with its eyes open. Savage, a strong actress, also has a beautiful voice and is the featured singer in the civil rights tune, “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around.”
Although new to singing on stage, Strowbridge’s strength is in her acting. Her monologue about her brother’s murder at the end of the funeral scene was riveting and heartbreaking, touching everyone in the audience.
Mabel (J’Renee Dickson), the preacher’s wife, wears a hat every Sunday “because I want to set an example.” Dickson’s vocals are strong, but she shines in the scene where she explains hat etiquette and has the memorable line, “Never touch my hat!”
Jeanette (Angela Naomi) describes how to use a hat to flirt. A strong, stately actress with a beautiful voice, Naomi glides gracefully across the stage and delivers her lines effortlessly. She draws laughs saying “Some women at church have asked to borrow this hat. But I’d lend them my children before I’d lend my hat.”
The Preacher (Brian Hancock) leads his congregation with strength and kindness. His melodic voice adds richness to the many numbers, especially “Take My Life and Let It Be.”
The Man (Donnie Gethers) plays multiple roles with ease. Gethers’ strong vocals add another layer to the outstanding musical performances in “Crowns.” An especially entertaining moment in the production is Gether’s energetic dancing in “That’s All Right.”
Vocal director Sarah Germain creates a heavenly choir of voices. Joining Fuqua, keyboardist Cedieu Xavier-Gantt adds just enough accompaniment to let the magnificent voices on stage soar.
Working in harmony with scenic designer Brighid Reppert’s simple yet functional set, lighting designer Joshua Huss and sound designer Taylor Torres create smart moments, especially the wedding pictures sequence, which is a production highlight. Caitlin Reppert’s colorful costume designs, including the magnificent “crowns,” makes each character explode into life on the stage.
In addition to the hats on stage, there are those worn by many audience members. Indeed, as they left the theater, they held their heads high, showing off their own Crowns and knowing that they are Queens.
SIDE O’ GRITS: “CROWNS” runs through Sunday at the Henegar Center, 625 E. New Haven Ave., Melbourne. Tickets are $20. Sunday’s show is sold out. The Henegar’s parking lot is mostly unavailable due to nearby construction. It is advisable to arrive early to find parking, or to buy valet parking tickets for $10 online up to two hours before curtain. Valet parking tickets available in person for $15. For more information, call 321-723-8698 or visit Henegar.org.