Hats off to ‘Crowns’ 

Touching ‘Town’

Arkansas Repertory Theatre
Jan. 29

Before I went to The Rep’s production of “Crowns” on Sunday, a friend warned I might not know the hymns and enjoy singing along, as he and his wife did. (The Episcopal hymnbook, we agreed, could use some spirituals.)

No matter. The music is soaring, the voices superb, the staging perfect, the whole production a professional, uplifting and exuberant experience. NaTasha Yvette Williams’ sometimes rocking, mostly soulful and always powerful rendition of “His Eye is on the Sparrow” is worth the ticket price alone.

Not many musicals have been inspired by coffee table books, the origin of “Crowns.” Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry’s book celebrated the church hat tradition of African-American women; Regina Taylor smartly put that tradition and its cultural implications together with heartfelt black gospel to come up with what, given the right costumes and voices, will always be a sure bet on stage.

The Rep has what it takes: The play’s six women and one man sing in powerful, wide and ringing ranges; their costumes — gauzy, satiny, shimmery church dresses in red, gold, blue, purple and deep crimson topped by hats with feathers, hats with flowers, hats in African fabric, hats with shells — are as rich as the music.

Director Lawrence Hamilton adds his own touch to “Crowns” by opening it with African drums and Barbara D. Mills’ low, surround-sound performance of “Olawu.” The women stand in silhouette on either side of her as deities, in colors that are later taken up by the modern-day characters. The opening is followed by what might be considered a second opening, as the deities become five women silhouetted in their slips. They’re pulling their church clothes onto figures that, like their voices, are ample and womanly — the kind of shapes that can carry off a wide and wonderful hat. When they move into “The Saints Go Marching In,” the audience is swept up with them until the last bow, and it’s a journey that is joyous, sorrowful and spiritual.

The story line in “Crowns” is less important than the vignettes and songs it slips through. A girl from Brooklyn whose beloved brother has been shot to death is sent South to live with a grandmother, and as the wise older women there fold her into their arms, their African sisterhood and identity, she’s able to put down her anger, attitude and pain. chandra thomas, with sultry voice and nimble moves and appropriate teen-aged expression, ably carries off the role of Yolanda.

With wry, funny and sometimes wistful stories, the women (and The Man, C. Mingo Long, who is preacher, husband, brother) explain to Yolanda, and us, why they wear their hats. Wanda (Chaundra Cameron) looks down on excessive bejeweled and fruited hats, because a hat is what you wear “when you are going to meet the King.” Sexy Jeannette (Lumiri Tubo) demonstrates how to flirt with a hat; Mabel (Joliet F. Harris) teaches that you must not touch them, knock them awry or borrow them. Mother Shaw (Mills) has so many she has to hide them at her sister’s house so her husband won’t be upset. In a brief, “Ain’t Misbehavin’ ”-style aside, Mother, in a voice as tiny and high as she is large and prepossessing, tells her husband that uniquely feminine lie, “You’ve seen this one before.”

Mostly, of course, the hats symbolize how a people who suffered immensely in an unjust society hold their heads up high in that first sanctuary from white folks: the church. (There, Mabel complains, some women come to church in short skirts, and her husband the pastor is confronted with the “Gates of Hell.”)

But mostly, “Crowns” is music, a full immersion in “Ain’t That Good News,” “Wade in the Water,” “When I’ve Done My Best (I Want My Crown),” “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” and, for Yolanda, “This Joy” (“This joy I have, the world didn’t give it to me … and the world can’t take it away.”) It’s wonderful, and it runs through Feb. 19.

— By Leslie Newell Peacock

‘Our Town’
Community Theatre of Little Rock
Jan. 28

The Community Theatre’s production of “Our Town” was deeply touching and communicated two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Thornton Wilder’s profound philosophy simply and clearly. The play’s metaphor easily translated the idea that change comes slowly in many communities, but finding joy in that which is commonplace should be held dear and celebrated.

Director Fran Cunningham made excellent use of the play’s minimalist setting at Woolly Auditorium on the Arkansas School for the Blind campus. Lighting designer, Adam Britt carefully balanced the simplistic lighting with the nearly barren set.

Seeing the progression of each character’s life unfold was like watching the lives of people you’d know in real life. All the actors did nice jobs, but in particular Misti Nicole Ponder was a revelation as Simon Stimson, an elderly drunk church choir director. The gender of Simon Stimson was at times ambiguous, but oddly masculine in general.

Scenes featuring Tricia H. Spione as Mrs. Webb and Elizabeth Reha as Julia Gibbs were seamless and natural. Byron Taylor (Mr. Webb) and Perry Bland (Dr. Frank Gibbs) gave sincere representations of loving fathers and supportive husbands.

One of the loveliest moments in the play was when George Gibbs (played by Keith Moore) and Emily Webb (played by Rachel Archer) converse in a soda shop. The exchanges between the childhood friends, who realize and admit that they have romantic feelings for each another, conjured a Norman Rockwell-like image on the almost bare stage.

Since many audiences today don’t have the patience to sit still for two and a half to three hours and a three-act play, many directors choose to trim “Our Town” to two acts. However, Cunningham opted for three acts and two intermissions, and it was delightful to experience the theatrical production in its originality. It never dragged, while it still was refreshing to recharge between acts.

CTLR, in its 50th year, will be back in April with “Arsenic and Old Lace.”

— By Jessica Sardashti



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