Playwright: Regina Taylor
At: Noyes Cultural Arts Center, 927 Noyes St., Evanston. Tickets: $15-25; 847-866-5915 or FJTheatre.com . Runs through: Aug. 26
Black women wear hats. The practice of adorning one's head is both Biblical and rooted in African tradition.
As the women of Crowns explain to the audience, hats are a culture all their own. Hats are a way to express themselves, to stand out in a world that seeks to oppress, to praise the God that made us all. Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre's uplifting production of Regina Taylor's play beautifully intersperses spoken word, gospel music and a rich, vibrant color palette to give the audience a rollicking, emotional education on Black women and the culture of a hat.
Troubled teen Yolanda ( Asia Jackson ) reluctantly moves to her grandmother's house in small-town South Carolina after an unspeakable tragedy in her home city of Brooklyn. Yolanda has a hat, but it's far from the "crowns" proudly sported by her grandmother, Shaw ( Mardra Thomas ). The teen keeps her late brother's baseball cap, with a stiff red brim, clipped to the loop of her baggy jeans. In contrast, Mother Shaw and the women of her church sport colorful, sparkling headwear every Sunday. As they dress to face the outside world, they take Yolanda through a wedding, a funeral, a baptismand the hats they wear along the way.
Crowns is at once simple and elaborate, with only a keyboard, percussion and the cast's divine voices. Each actress has a chair and a hat rack, and they enact whole lives against a colorful painted backdrop festooned with portraits of real-life local women posing with their own crowns. The effect is a marvelous visual and auditory feast, a tribute to the resilience of Black women who've progressed from slavery to sharecropping to living in a society that still doesn't treat them right.
Co-directors Tim Rhoze and Bria Walker have selected vivacious performers whose effect on the crowd is positively stunning. Thomas' vocals are a dead ringer for Billie Holiday, and her Mother Shaw is sensitive and devout. Jackson thoughtfully brings out Yolanda's vulnerability. Tuesdai B. Perry's dance skills are unparalleled, and Qiana McNary delivers the funniest monologue of the play, themed "never touch my hat!" As the oldest character, Renee Lockette embodies wisdom and "hattitude" and Robin Beaman gives a stirring tribute to old-school evangelical churches.
No matter your place on the faith spectrum, Crowns will make you a believer … in hats.