From the streets of Brooklyn, to the front lines of the civil rights movement, to the pews of a southern Presbyterian church, “African Americans do many African things without really knowing it.” The College of William and Mary brought occupants of Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall to church with last weekend’s impassioned production of “Crowns.”
Adapted from a book by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry, “Crowns” follows Yolanda (Tatiana Bull ’15), a young Brooklynite who is sent to live with her grandmother in Darlington, S.C. Her struggle and resulting journey to reconcile her urban upbringing with her African ancestry is presented through the stories of the women of her church community who, through the use of their elegantly adorned hats, teach her about the power of self-expression and personal identity.
Directed by Artisia Green, “Crowns” intricately blended spoken word performances with African American spiritual hymns to present an in-depth perspective into African American spiritual traditions and the transformation of the black identity. The show’s dance numbers, choreographed by Kristin Hopkins ’15, ranged from soulful solos to visually stimulating group performances and maintained a consistent pace, eliminating slow or dragging moments.
Costumes, designed by Mary Jo Damon and Patricia M. Wesp, proved as vibrant as the characters’ personalities. Each woman’s detailed and elegant hat served as the ideal representation of her character. The show’s musical aspects focused on its spiritual message and featured accompaniment keyboard by Bobby LaRose ’16 and percussion by Orimolade Ogunjimi.
Each member of the small cast delivered nearly every line with tenacity, and only a few lines dropped. Intriguing interactions among characters took place in the background of most scenes, and each actor moved about the stage with clear intentionality befitting their character. With its cohesion, the cast demonstrated the benefits of a close-knit group and its ability to showcase the individual strengths of each individual in a memorable manner.
“Crowns’” characters took after particular aspects of African mythological expressions of God in nature, which were admirably expressed in the colored attire and mannerisms of the show’s actresses. Rae-Mischel Thompson-Cooper ’16 and Erin Owens ’17 showed great strength of delivery and comedic timing with Thompson-Cooper’s smooth, deep vocals combining with Hopkins’ vocal tenacity to create distinct harmonies. Eryn Barnes ’17 had a flirtatious demeanor and expression that allowed her to paint creative visuals from her monologues. Similarly, Keaton O’ Neal Hillman ’16 maintained the consistent energy and vocal power of a genuine preacher. Alana Canty-Samuel ’18 provided consistency with her peaceful demeanor and delivery. Bull displayed her commitment as an actress through her character’s effort to come to terms with her brother’s death and eventual renewal.
The church setting of the show was beautifully proportioned and accented by projected stained glass windows, which smoothly shifted to display the lyrics of each of the show’s spiritual hymns. The downstage area was brightly lit to dispel shadows cast by the hats’ wide brims and multiple levels of the stage area allowed for a dynamic appearance.
Overall, William and Mary Theatre broke its own mold to present a production bursting with visual and auditory intensity. The show’s fluidity and consistency allowed its message and lessons to resonate with audiences of all races. With this triumphant performance, the cast of “Crowns” proved that hats can be much more than mere accessories. They can be crowns, worn by queens, paying tribute to the memories, love and loss that exist in each of our lives.