The support and solace of community are affectingly rendered in Raleigh Little Theatre’s terrific production of “Crowns.”
The 2002 musical uses Southern black women’s passion for large, colorful church hats as a springboard for examining their lives, from birth to death and from slavery to civil rights. Seven talented cast members elicit roars of laughter, and not a few tears, with vivid anecdotes backed by soul-stirring vocals.
Playwright Regina Taylor adapted the show from the book by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry, which features photos of African-American women in their hats, accompanied by short interviews. Taylor created a plot about a teenager named Yolanda who is sent from Brooklyn’s dangerous streets to live with Mother Shaw, her grandmother, in Darlington, S.C.
Within that framework, Mother Shaw and her friends tell Yolanda stories about their relationships with hats, from enjoying them for flirting and one-upmanship to using them to remember funerals and discrimination. These mini-monologues are interspersed with hymns and gospel numbers, mostly sung in ensembles but sometimes as solos.
Director Terra Hodge and musical director Carolyn Colquitt have instilled the cast with such character and conviction that the disjointed and somewhat over-extended script is easily forgiven. Except for a few pacing problems at Friday’s opening, the show’s energy carried the audience along for a heartwarming look at the love and humanity that bind a community.
Lynette Barber’s Mother Shaw projected a seasoned wisdom, amusing when she hides her hat purchases from her husband and admirable when boldly shopping at a predominantly white department store. Barber’s intense vocals, especially for “Ole Ship of Zion,” demanded active audience participation.
Chelsey Moore gave Yolanda appropriate sullenness at first, making a nice transition to accepting Southern traditions with a moving take on “I’ve Got Joy Like a Fountain.”
It was hard to choose a favorite from the quartet of Mother Shaw’s friends. India Williams was first among equals as Mabel, the preacher’s wife, whose hilarious warnings not to touch a woman’s hat brought down the house. Aya Wallace’s strict, prim schoolteacher Wanda had marvelous timing in her constant put-downs. LaToya Smith strutted and preened as the self-centered Jeanette, while Chanda Branch’s funeral director, Velma, found humor in hats for the departed and wowed with her uplifting styling of “His Eye Is On The Sparrow.”
Joshua Johnson, the lone man in the cast, played multiple roles, from preachers to fathers, and sang a stirring version of “I’m Gonna Roll On.”
Vicki Olson’s costumes, whether Sunday finery or street wear, stood out against Shannon Clark’s simple but effective settings of platforms and church pews and glowed in Jeremy Diamond’s lighting. Colquitt, the musical director, on keyboards and Bernard Clark on percussion rocked the vocals and quietly underpinned the dialogue.
Best of all was the feeling that every audience member belonged to one big family, whose laughter, sighs of recognition and uncontrollable urge to clap along indicated that our similarities outweigh our differences.
Where: Raleigh Little Theatre, 301 Pogue St., Raleigh
When: 8 p.m. Aug. 31, Sept. 1-2, 7-9 15-16; 3 p.m. Sept. 3, 10, 17
Tickets: $28; $24 for seniors and students
Info: 919-821-3111 or raleighlittletheatre.org