By Aaron Allen
The Seattle Medium
I recently had the opportunity to see the play Crowns. The play, written by Regina Taylor, adapted from the book by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry and directed by Faith Bennett Russell, is playing at the Taproot theater in the Greenwood neighborhood in Seattle.
The play, set in the 1960s, tells the story of a young Black girl from Brooklyn, New York named Yolanda and after losing her brother to a violent death her mother sends her South, to South Carolina, to live with her grandmother where she was introduced to Crowns or hats.
In the American African community, particularly in the Black church, the Church is the Black women’s Kentucky Derby when it comes to hats, but instead of once a year, your hat game was every week, but the roots of this Black women’s tradition stem from a very different perspective and a very different experience than her White counterpart at the Kentucky Derby. The grandeur (and competitiveness) of the tradition is just the same, except that its accompanied with a little extra flair.
Admittedly, I didn’t know much about the lady’s hat game, particularly from a Southern perspective, as the play examines the types of hats Black women wear, how they’re worn, how they’re made, what they’re made of, who made it! The way it moves, yes hats move, the genealogy and traditions of the women that wore them, it’s called as the writers express it, “Hatitude”. How important are Crowns to women’s culture as the play states, “I can lend my child out, but not my hats! My children can find their way back, but my hat might not…”
Yolanda, played by Bethanie Willis, finds herself in another universe as she adjusted to Southern life from the metropolis of New York. Surrounded by traditional Southern Black women she is initiated in Black womanhood and what that entails through the practical, functioning and interpretive women’s hat culture.
Willis’ personal connection to the character she plays is evident throughout the performance.
“I play Yolanda who lost a brother who was killed by a friend,” says Willis. “I can relate to this story because I lost a sister and that kind of launched me into this role.”
“This play brings back a lot of memories of my sister as she battled cancer,” continued Willis. “She wore a lot of different hats everyday because of hair loss, when I’m on stage wearing these hats it just reminded me of my sister.”
The women who embrace the responsibility in reviving the spirit of this heartbroken child exemplified what I remember growing up around intelligent, strong, soulful and spiritual Black women — the Matriarchs.
Five beautiful, talented and vibrant actors, Bretteney Beverly who played Wanda, Marlette Buchanan played Mabel, Kristen Natalia played Velma, Be Russell played Jeanette and Tracy Michelle Hughes performed the role of Mother Shaw, Yolanda’s Grandmother, each giving life’s experience to their roles.
“What I identified with Crowns, what I was intrigued by, it reminded me so much of my upbringing, so much of my southern culture although it’s not just southern, but for me it was something that was every day for me,” states Buchanan.
“When I was little there was all these pictures of me in hats, gloves, heels and stockings,” Buchanan recalled. “What I loved about doing this play is that every time I’m on stage I’m reminded of some familiar type of theme that happened in my family and that to me is really beautiful.”
Although the story centers around the relationship of women and their hats there was a male role appropriately entitled “Man” played by Vincent “VJ” Orduna, who represented the various characteristics of the Black man of that time – steady, loyal and fatherly, spiritually sound, soulful, and protective. Orduna carried this role with extreme confidence portraying each facet of manhood, transitioning from a grandfather, to teenager, to preacher, to father with a smooth and versatile ease.
The five sistas, like a sorority, interpreted the meaning of womanhood to this young girl through melody and song as they rocked traditional gospel music and spirituals. The Church is instrumental as the venue through which you learn the meaning of Black spirituality, community, Black culture, compassion, family and love. Throughout the play the ladies reference the fact that, “a woman could look naked in the casket without a hat…” or “I have to wear my crown when I’m going to see the King…”
The harmony and range of the vocals as they harkened back to the days of African culture and African verbal storytelling traditions through song, these ladies and gentleman can sing! At the same time utilizing a plethora of designer, homemade and hand me down hats that help convey the message.
The music directed by Aaron Norman and conducted by Dr. Stephen Michael Newby, was traditional Black gospel music accompanied by African tradition songs. “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep”, “Wade In The Water”, “On The Battlefield For My Lord”, “Eye On The Sparrow”, traditional in their delivery, reminding you of the influence of the Black church.
As Yolanda struggles her way through this new life, this adjustment, missing her brother, her past, she discovers a whole new existence, almost a different universe and as it is unveiled to her through the metaphor of wearing hats, she begins to open up, become awoke and after her ceremonial baptism and the small but significant white headdress one wears when one is baptized she becomes aware.
The play through wardrobe changes and traditional African drum transitions back to an Africa setting as Yolanda steps into the spot light dressed in a stylish pants suit with her head adorned with a traditional African headdress, you see the completion of her initiation, her passage, her transformation from child to woman. Traditional right of passage in way only Black women know, their sorority.
The energy that exuded from the cast was palpable, so intimate you wanted to reach out and touch it. The Taproot theater and the talent performing I discovered a gem. The performances were committed, compassionate, infectious, informative and talented. Described as a play where “gospel music and storytelling come together to surprise, delight and remind us all of the unique and diverse ways we express ourselves,” I found Crowns to be a five-star surprise. This live performance is full of “Hatitude” and will leave you wanting more, an encore.
Crowns is playing now through April 28 at the Taproot Theatre – 204 N. 85th St., Seattle, WA 98103.