One of Those Rare, Special Nights at the Theater with Gospel Musical and "Hat Queen" Ode Crowns | Theater | Indy Week

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One of Those Rare, Special Nights at the Theater with Gospel Musical and "Hat Queen" Ode Crowns

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You can tell when an audience isn't just enjoying a show, but is in communion with it. They don't wait for the end of the scene to applaud; instead, it happens spontaneously, mid-line, as refreshing as cool rain. When actors tell the undisputed truth about our lives, notice is returned in an audible chorus of laughs or an animated call and response. And the music—it starts onstage but it doesn't end there. Not when the house takes up the clapping and singing with authority, a fully vested partner in the work.

No, every night in a theater isn't like this. And that's what makes shows like the opening night of Crowns so special. Director Terra Hodge, musical director Carolyn Colquitt, choreographer Brenda Hayes, costume designer Vicki Olson, and a septet of actors breathed life into Regina Taylor's gospel musical, an adaptation of a best-selling book of photo ethnography on the "hat queens" of the African-American church.

Clearly, many in the audience at Raleigh Little Theatre saw their own lives and beliefs reflected in the collected wisdom of a quintet of women from the rural South, as they worked to impart their folkways and faith to the musical's resistant central character, Yolanda (Chelsey Moore), a teenager forcibly transplanted to South Carolina after her brother was killed by a gang in Brooklyn.

That cultural crash-landing is intensified when Yolanda finds herself living with Mother Shaw, a figure of authority—a "prayer warrior"—in the local Pentecostal church. After Lynnette Barber belts out the sober "I'm On the Battlefield for My Lord" and an ecstatic "That's All Right," it's hard to argue when another character observes, "Nobody can usher in the Spirit like Mother Shaw."

At first, the different ways of praise—and what counts as acceptable or unacceptable headwear, deportment, and liturgical dance—form a barricade for the estranged Yolanda, made all but literal in the troubling last moments of the first act. But when resolution comes, traditions and beliefs are carried forward—in a different style perhaps, but fundamentally intact.

Solid performances convey the stern but loving small-town faith community with integrity. Joshua Johnson carried the authority of the preacher in song and speech, and India Williams laid down the hat queens' laws as Mabel, the preacher's wife.

Church can happen in the strangest places. A theatrical revival took place Friday night at Raleigh Little Theatre.

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