Burning Coal Theater
Through April 27
Some people might find tiresome the prospect of listening to older ladies reminiscing for 90 minutes. But Burning Coal's Crowns, essentially a series of monologues tacky-glued together by a loose plot, is anything but difficult to watch. Written by Regina Taylor, this gospel musical was adapted from a book by Tar Heel authors Michael Cunningham and Craig Mayberry that uses photographs and interviews to document the hats Southern black women wear to church.
As hats hang from the ceiling of the Murphey School Auditorium, the women below delve into the etiquette of hats and how to wear one with "hattitude," as Velma (Emilia Cowans) calls it. "Never touch my hat. You have to admire it from a distance, honey," says Mabel (the wonderfully vivacious Yolanda Rabun), whose monologue on being a preacher's wife snagged the night's largest audience response.
Directed by Rebecca Holderness, Crowns is full to the brim with energy and humor as these ladies reveal the sacrifices behind their hat-donning. The sage elder Mother Shaw (played by the talented Joan J) notes that church used to be the only public place black people could dress up and attend.
As the actors and actresses deliver their anecdotal advice to the audience and to Yolanda (whose background as a hip-hopping Brooklyn transplant provides the production's thin plotline), the others mime their stories, trade off lines of dialogue, dance, chant, hum and agree—the result of which is an ever-swirling, spirited production. The buoyant score (directed by Julie Florin) employs gospel, hip hop and chants, while the dancing (choreographed by Naima Adedapo, who also plays Yolanda) often culminates in frenzied spiritual ecstasy. Sherida McMullan, Le Dawna Akins, Paul Garrett and C. Delton Streeter ably round out the cast.
Still, the ending of the production seems forced and redundant. As Yolanda comes to appreciate the culture of the black South, she talks of her need to find herself, and other actresses drive home the point that hats allow these women to feel like queens. Although neither point is fresh, the rest of the musical is well worth seeing—you may even leave ready to comply with the ladies' ebullient directive, "Put something on your head, girl!"