April 13, 2007

Crowns explores a culture and character
by David Ollington

Our clothes, accessories and trappings — a small manifestation of us, or do they make the person?

Playwright Regina Taylor, with her creation Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats, uses church hats as a vehicle to explore American Southern, black, religious culture. This musical event operates from the standpoint that the hats in this world extend the spirit and values of the women wearing them.

The Unicorn Theatre ran Crowns a year ago at their home on Main and 39th. This year, they remounted the show, playing at Park University March 27-April 1. April 4, Crowns took the stage at the historic Gem Theater on E. 18th St. It runs until April 21.

(l to r) Victoria Barbee, Tiffany Jones Sipple, Karen Cline Wright, Mykel Hill, Lori Wellman, Davita J. Wesley Vaughn and Angela Wildflower Polk (front) in Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats. (photo by Cynthia Levin and courtesy of Unicorn Theatre)

Taylor composed the work predominantly as a series of monologues, usually given by women (the cast contains one male) about the hats they wear for worship. She creatively investigated the concept of headgear as a conduit for theatrical material. We learn the historical importance of dressing for church, particularly for the weekly religious gathering of African Americans in the rural South. These women express status, individuality and values in the selection of their hats.

“When I get dressed to go to church, I’m going to meet the king, so I must look my best,” expresses Tiffany Jones Sipple as Wanda.

“When I’ve done the best I can, I want my crown,” insists Lori Wellman as Velma.

The show’s material possesses range. We hear detailed stories of specific hats. “I was very proud to wear what Mama made,” proclaims Karen Cline Wright as Mabel.

Hats become lens through which we view a culture. The cast finds humor in the explanation of a church hat’s nonverbal nomenclature. The hats bob when they agree with the preacher and snap to glare at anyone disrupting service. We also learn the rules around the proper holding of the head when hugging in a church hat.

The subject matter also gets serious. Throughout, the creators and performers infuse deep religious conviction. We experience the desegregation of shopping when one woman tells the story of finally marching to the counter of what was once a white-only department store.

Director Jacqueline L. Gafford coached inspired performances from all of the actors. Anthony Edwards expertly conducts the music.

Angela Wildflower Polk plays the role of Yolanda. She opens the show wearing a red ball cap (not an appropriate choice for church) and using the medium of rap to express northeastern urban angst. Yolanda leaves Brooklyn for South Carolina to live with her grandmother (Davita J. Wesley Vaughn). Amidst these hat-heavy monologues, Taylor wove the story of a young woman’s predictable transformation from inner city rebel to rural born-again.

Polk portrays the role with excellence. She sounds convincingly contemporary in the rap number, and then later delivers gospel music with vibrant fervor. Both tenderly and humorously she expresses Yolanda’s initial discomfort with the rhythmic holy spirit of the women around her.

Unfortunately, Taylor created two conflicting plays: Yolanda’s change and growth versus a series of hat monologues with intermittent spirituals. We get drawn into Yolanda’s story (and Polk’s performance) only to feel it interrupted by a story about a hat. Other times, the hilarious and sensitively delivered hat anecdotes get put off to develop the plotline.

Damron Russell Armstrong’s choreography works best during a number when Victoria Barbee as Jeanette tells the story of how her father reacts to the hat she wears. Armstrong has actor Mykel Hill as the father dancing in slow motion in response to Barbee’s speech. Armstrong’s group numbers consist of only two movement choices: swaying back and forth, or marching in a circle. For every group song, Armstrong disperses the cast evenly across the stage. The redundant formation grows tiresome on the eye and fails to enliven Spencer Musser’s blandly symmetrical set.

As a critic who covers both theatre and concert dance, I cannot help but notably compare the show to choreographer Alvin Ailey’s 1960 masterpiece Revelations.

The presence of the organization the Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey makes a KC production of Crowns even more comparable to Ailey’s work. Ailey used dance to envision his Southern Baptist roots. The final segment of his ballet has a stage full of women in long, white dresses, fanning themselves and wearing hats. One of the comic speeches in Crowns concerns the nature of the fans one carries in church and how one side always has an advertisement for a funeral home. The Crowns cast sings “Wade in the Water,” a vitally important segment of Revelations.

Taylor based the play on a book by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry. They did with words what Ailey did with movement and thoroughly explored their ideas. In the Unicorn production, the voices ring, the actors deliver and the music rocks.

Crown: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats runs through April 21 at the Gem Theater, 1615 E. 18th St. Call the Central Ticket Office at 816-235-6222 or visit

David Ollington can be contacted at


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