Oklahoma City — The gospel musical Crowns touches on the ecclesiastical-millinery connection in African-American culture. The show may not stir your soul, but it’s likely to teach you a little something about how seriously some women take their hats. Well, it covers slightly more than that.
The score features more than 20 gospel songs and traditional hymns done gospel style. Regina Taylor adapted the script for this 2002 show from a coffee table book by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry about churchwomen and their elaborate hats, known as crowns. Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma is now presenting the show at the Plaza Theatre, directed by W. Jerome Stevenson, whose day job is artistic director of Pollard Theatre Company in Guthrie, Okla.
Anyone who grew up in a rural Protestant church will recognize many of the show’s songs, such as “Marching to Zion,” “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” and “His Eye is on the Sparrow.”
Taylor’s script consists of a series of vignettes (with a sketchy plot) that celebrate a certain part of African-American life. A young woman from Brooklyn, New York, is sent to South Carolina to live with her grandmother after her brother’s murder. We hear about her evolution from rejected outsider to wearer of many hats. But mainly, the virtually interchangeable characters just reminisce about such topics as grandma, tobacco farming, country churches, tough times, triumphs, tragedies, joys, sorrows, the scourge of racism and clever ways of dealing with it, and daddy’s garden. They go to churches with names like Holy Trinity Pentecostal Church of God and Nazarene Baptist Church.
According to early dialogue, the only place slaves were allowed to congregate was church, so if anyone had new apparel to show off, that was the place to do it. This practice and the custom of headdresses for women evolved into the tradition of African-American churchwomen being particular about their hats, or their “hatitude.”
The show includes useful instruction on hat etiquette. For example, never wear a hat that’s wider than your shoulders. And when hugging a woman who’s wearing a hat (especially if you’re another woman wearing a hat), lean in opposite directions and keep space between yourselves.
Jeffrey Meek designed the colorful costumes, which any churchwoman should be proud to wear on Easter Sunday. They include sharp-looking matching shoes and, natch, hats.
The characters are individuals but have little distinction between them. The actors do about as well as could be expected in the acting department, and they belt out the songs. The churchwomen are M. Denise Lee, Kizzie Ledbetter, Nakeisha McGee, Kimberly M. Oliver, and Delanie Phillips Brewer. Ashley Marie Arnold plays the young Brooklynite. Derrick Cobey plays several characters under the name “Man” (not to be confused with The Man). (Lee and Oliver are Dallas-based actors.)
Uldarico Sarmiento’s scenic design of rough-hewn wood and wooden chairs reminds of John Doyle's design for the touring The Color Purple, which played here last month. A nice detail in one church scene are the paper fans with wooden handles and a photo of Martin Luther King or John F. Kennedy on one side and a funeral home advertisement on the other. A two-piece combo of electronic keyboard and drums accompanies the show.
In an iffy attempt to tell a bigger story, Crowns gives the hat tradition of African-American churchwomen a cursory, if musically enjoyable, treatment.