Saturday, June 1, 2013

Crowns, Karamu House

Just when you think women’s hats are going out of style, here comes a royal wedding in England and the most outrageous chapeaus appear, some of them even defying gravity.

Of course, there are some communities where glorious hats are always front and center, such as African-American church-going women. And that is the group celebrated in Crowns by Regina Taylor, now at Karamu House.

This is a rocking, foot-stomping gospel music tribute to the importance of an item of clothing that might appear trivial to some. But hats have deep meaning to these ladies. And although this production fizzles in places, the performers under the opulent headgear are, for the most part, immensely appealing.

The wafer-thin plot involves a young woman from Brooklyn, Yolanda, whose brother has been killed in a shooting. She has gone to live with her grandmother in South Carolina, and is soon immersed in the hat culture and arch “hattitude” of the ladies who invest blood, sweat and tears in their millinery.

Studded with gospel songs throughout—from “If I Could Touch the Hem of His Garment” to “I’m On the Battlefield for My Lord”—the Karamu stage often throbs with the infectious glory of that music. And the seven-person cast of singers lend these tunes a rich ferocity that makes you want to stand up and dance.

Equally appealing are the stories playwright Taylor weaves about the importance of hats to these women.  One has hard and fast rules about hats: don’t sneak up on me from behind, don’t hug, don’t touch. And another has more than 200 hats, taking up every surface in her home and almost driving her husband out.

And when the women demonstrate how they greet each other, twisting and arching their backs so their elaborate hats don’t touch, it’s both hilarious and affecting. The specifics about church services are also fascinating, describing the ever-present fans in the sweltering churches: a piece of cardboard with a picture of Martin Luther King on one side and a funeral parlor ad on the other.

But the hats themselves are more than decoration and frippery. They represent a connection to God and devotion, and they also symbolize the sacrifice it took to acquire these luminous lids. This serious side of hats is expressed in a couple stories of the fathers and husbands who appreciate the hats their women wore.

However, the energetic music often overwhelms the speaking voices, so the audience loses some of the wonderful details comprising Taylor’s captivating stories. And after about an hour has passed (it’s a 110-minute show without an intermission), the momentum of the fragmented piece begins to disintegrate.

Happily most of the performers, under the direction of Terrence Spivey, could not be more appealing. Joyce Linzy is a radiant Mother Shaw, grandma to Yolanda. And her bevy of friends played by Christina Johnson, Cherie McElroy-Burch, Nina Respress and Lauren N. Sturdivant are each distinctive in their own ways.

Nathan A. Lilly is the lone male singer/actor on stage, and he lends a strong vocal presence to the proceedings. As Yolanda, Imani Jackson sings well but she keeps her head down so much we can rarely share her character’s experience as she evolves from numb outsider to a proud member of the hat brigade.

A couple of lithe dancers are included the mix but, despite their evident talents, they don’t add much to the heart of this show. It’s all about hats and the women who wear them. And when the production focuses on that, without excessive ambient noise, this production truly soars.

Through June 16 at Karamu House, 2355 E. 89th St., 216-795-7077

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