L to R (seated) Robin Beaman, Asia Jackson, Mardra Thomas and (standing) Quiana McNaryPhotos by Basil Clunie

As the final play of the Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre summertime season, Regina Taylor’s “Crowns” had local theatregoers eagerly anticipating its opening. It was worth the wait. The atmosphere was jubilant as the audience took their seats for the Aug. 12 sold-out performance of the stirring gospel musical based on the book of the same name by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry.

A talented seven-member cast takes the audience on a journey that illuminates the special relationship between black women and their headpieces, especially their church hats. The hats have a life of their own in this rich, exhilarating 90-minute theatre experience. Each holds a story of a wedding, a funeral and a baptism, told through the personal narratives of five female cast members. Their stories are interspersed with glorious gospel music numbers. The magic is that the performers transition seamlessly between their roles as actors and as members of the ensemble – while wearing hats that rival those seen at a royal wedding.

The five women all follow established tradition by showing off their best attire at church, which has served as a refuge for black women from the days of slavery to today. They have a shared understanding that the right hat conveys a woman’s pride in her heritage as well as her appearance. Donning a hat lavishly adorned with
colorful feathers, Jeanette, portrayed by Tuesdai B. Perry, quips, “I’d lend my
children before I’d lend my hats. I know my children know their way home.”

The women have “hattitude” and they adhere to “hat-queen rules,” the first of which is to never touch a woman’s headwear. Ms. Taylor’s adaptation of Cunningham and Marberry’s book makes it clear that the “crowns” worn by black churchwomen are much more than fashion statements.

“Adorning the head is a tradition from Africa,” one of the older women instructs Yolanda, the play’s teenage protagonist. “When I put on a hat, it’s with the spirits I’m communing.”

The women rely on their faith and traditions, rooted first in their African ancestry, and then in American black churches in the South, to guide them through life’s struggles, sorrows, celebrations and triumphs. They come up against a generational divide, however, when they try to help Yolanda gain a sense of belonging after she is sent from her home in Brooklyn to stay with her grandmother, Mother Shaw, in South Carolina, after her brother is murdered.

Although she “won’t trade hip-hop for gospel hymns,” Yolanda gains an appreciation for the “heirloom” nature of the fascinators and fedoras worn by the church women. Through the stories held by the hats owned by Mother Shaw and her friends, Yolanda comes to a stronger sense of her own identity and heritage.

“Crowns” is a play for everyone. It is a celebration of the phases and passages of life and the interconnected nature of all human beings.

While a sense of shared experience with the characters might be especially meaningful to some audience members, there is no need to relate directly to any particular character or scene in order to fully enjoy the show. Nor need one be Christian or religious to enjoy the uplifting gospel songs and hymns that are woven like beautiful gold threads into a tapestry of music, voice and song. You do not even need to have an affinity for fancy hats to love “Crowns,” but you probably will, by the end of the performance.

Performances of “Crowns,” directed by Tim Rhoze and Bria Walker, run Saturdays and Sundays through Aug. 26 at the theater at Noyes Cultural Arts Center,
927 Noyes St.

Heidi Randhava

Heidi Randhava is an award winning reporter who has a deep commitment to community engagement and service. She has written for the Evanston RoundTable since 2016.