Hats Off to Magnificent, Thought-Provoking CROWNS at DTC

by Holly Quinn

From left: Velma (Donna Jones of Wilmington) and Wanda (Kimberly S. Fairbanks of Lansdowne, PA) admire Jeanette’s (Lauren Blackwell) feathered hat in CROWNS at Delaware Theatre Company. (Photo credit: Matt Urban)

CROWNS, the final show of the Delaware Theatre Company’s 33rd Season, is a rare breed of play — the kind that is not only thought-provoking and entertaining, but also makes the audience feel honored just to experience it. It’s a story of transformation, and of holding on to old traditions, of pride and devotion and — yes — hats. Church hats, primarily. If you’ve ever wondered why opulent hats and fascinators rivaling those worn by British royalty are a fixture in many African-American churches, CROWNS will school you. But more than that, the hats serve as a theme that helps explore African-American history through the eyes of generations of women.

The new generation is represented by Yolanda, beautifully played by Ashlei Dabney, a street-tough teen from Brooklyn. After her brother’s murder, she is sent to live in the Deep South with her grandmother, played by the fabulous Barbara D. Mills. She is a fish out of water, surrounded by elegant, well-dressed ladies whose lives revolve around the church. She has little interest in these Southern women, who seem foreign and a bit too conformist to her, at first. They use their grand hats, some passed down through generations, to teach Yolanda about their shared history. Spoken word stories and songs transport you from the present day to decades past, to churches, tobacco fields, and ‘60s Civil Rights marches. The tradition of adorning one’s head is rooted both in African Culture and Biblical teaching, which intersected in slave times when women were only free to dress up for church. The specialness of church, and the liberation associated with wearing grand hats (even if they came from a yard sale or a five and dime and dressed up by hand), still lives on, and, Yolanda learns, is worth holding on to.

Barbara D. Mills as Mother Shaw instructs on the finer points of hat-titude in CROWNS at Delaware Theatre Company (background: Joilet F. Harris and Kimberly Fairbanks). (Photo credit: Matt Urban)

As a musical, CROWNS is about as good as it gets; the songs are real-deal gospel songs done flawlessly with true passion. Every performance stands out in its own way; in addition to Mills and Dabney, the cast features Lauren Blackwell as Jeanette, Kimberly S. Fairbanks as Wanda, Joilet F. Harris as Mabel, Donna Jones as Velma, and Doug Eskew in all of the male roles. Together, they’re magnificent.

Written by Regina Taylor
Book by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry
Directed and Choreographed by Kevin Ramsey
Musical Direction by e’Marcus Harper
April 11 – 29, 2012
Delaware Theatre Company
200 Water Street
Wilmington, DE 19801

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