Metaphor hangs, literally, over the Burning Coal Theatre Company’s return engagement of Regina Taylor’s Crowns (a co-production with Sanford’s Temple Theatre). A variety of white hats, suspended over the playing area, provide mute but eloquent witness to the rich monologues enacted below.
Taylor — the most arresting presence on, and the best thing about, the David Mamet series The Unit — wove her brisk, affecting mood-piece from the folk poetry collected by North Carolina natives Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry in their sumptuous book of words and images celebrating African-American church women as well as the found material of gospel music. With its uniformly splendid cast and the never less than inspired staging of Rebecca Holderness, Crowns is that rare theatrical experience binding adherent and non-believer alike in its mesmerizing tapestry.
Although the playwright crafted onto the material a sort of through-line of the young Brooklynite Yolanda, uprooted from her urban environs to rural South Carolina after the violent death of her beloved brother, she has done so with restraint. Moreover, Yolanda’s journey becomes inextricably bound into the fabric, rather than something merely imposed upon the basic strands. As played, with a potent mixture of sass and vulnerability by Naima Adedapo, Yolanda can’t keep still; she’s the embodiment of urban jumpiness. Part of her journey involves slowing her movements — accepting a slower pace and finding her own way to move within it, which she ultimately does; her joyous dance at the end is integrated into the larger community, yet still very much the expression of a distinct individual.
In the monologues of the women (and two men) of Yolanda’s extended family, talking about hats, and their importance, becomes another means of testifying. What the Parson’s wife calls “Hattitude” is a signifier, of everything from Biblical modesty to a symbol of status within the larger community. Within these very personal observations — some amusing, some quietly persuasive, others stark and powerful — lie unforced prose poems that limn universal truths concerning life, self-sacrifice, the unspoken rules of communal deportment, and the death of the body.
The physical elements of Crowns are as deceptively unadorned yet as complex and organic as Rebecca Holderness’ direction, revealing threads and connective tissue in the simplest of terms, through exquisitely detailed patterns of movement and imagery. A bench, turned upon an end, becomes a pulpit. Warm amber transforms the performance space just as, later, the coupling of blue light and cool, patterned cloth create the perfect illusion of baptism. There cannot be praise enough for Holderness or for the musical direction of Jan Powell or Vicki R. Davis’ starkly beautiful costume designs.
In a cast with no weak link, there is particular strength in Naima Adedapo’s mercurial Yolanda, in Paul Garrett’s warm, honey-like tones, in LeDawna Akins’ equal histrionic and vocal assurance (her effecting vibrato is not unlike that of the great Lynne Thigpen), in C. Delton Streeter’s rich baritone, and in Joan J’s authoritative Mother Shaw. Emilia “Me-Me” Cowans, Sherida McMullan, and Yolanda Rabun add grace to an octet of performers as richly variegated as any you’re likely to encounter on this secular plain.
Although I am, at best, a skeptic, I admit that a good rendition of “His Eye is on the Sparrow” can reduce me to tears. The one in Crowns — beginning as a sweet, slow solo line and mutating into a joyful, hand-clapping group hymn— finished me off nicely.
Crowns runs December 9-19, 2010 at the Murphey School, 224 Polk Street, Raleigh — Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. For details, see our calendar.