The Cunningham-Marberry book is made up of oral histories of African-American women from across the United States. They talk in a variety of styles and tones but always about the same subject: their Sunday Church hats. These histories are accompanied in the hardcover book by pictures of the speakers, all of them wearing their flamboyant hats. Taylor has taken these histories and restructured them, creating a narrative that is as carefully blocked as any of the scores of hats that adorn the stage. (Riccardo Hernandez's heady set design features four hat-holding spires that rise from the stage to the rafters.)
Seven actors play an ever-changing series of real people whose stories are told in the book. These oral histories have been "opened up" (to use movie jargon) so that not only are the storytellers on stage, so are the characters described in their tales. Lawrence Clayton plays an impressive variety of men in this show, from a young girl's big brother who is killed in the 'hood to a farm laborer by day/preacher by night. A quicksilver actor, deft dancer, and expressive singer, he's the one essential, versatile performer with whom the rest of the cast constantly works.
Nonetheless, Crowns is very much a women's play, and the six females who inhabit this world -- and wear those hats -- create a powerful dynamic of sisterhood. They also create a beautiful sound, individually and when they sing in various combinations with each other. Carmen Ruby Floyd, Harriett D. Foy, Lynda Gravatt, Janet Hubert, Ebony Jo-Ann, and Lillias White are an ensemble to reckon with; White gets a star turn but all of the performers hold the stage equally well.
The show is gently, almost unobtrusively, divided into seven different occasions when a God-fearing African-American woman might wear a hat. Among these are morning services, funerals, and baptisms. Dozens of stories unfold, including one about the experience of buying a hat in a formerly "white's only" store. The images are rich (Emilio Sosa dashingly designed the costumes, including the hats). The language of the play has an authenticity that is at once subtle and powerful. And music (arrangements by Linda Twine, percussion scoring and performance by David Pleasant) and dance (choreography by Ronald K. Brown) are woven into the show so well that they feel entirely natural and organic. Hats off to Regina Taylor for a considerable achievement.