Both in tribute to a rollicking show and in deference to folks sitting behind them, the audience doffed their hats during Regina Taylor's Crowns at Geva. But men and women wore fancy hats to the opening, and some bought fancy hats from Rochester milliners in the lobby. The show celebrates the "hattitude" of Southern African-American women attending church on Sundays.
Those "crowns" reflect an African tradition that became engrained in this country as a proud reminder to our "uncrowned queens" of their descent from African royalty. They were and are not only beautiful but also ceremonial.
Crowns presents a throughline story of Yolonda, a Brooklyn girl who is sent to stay with her grandmother, Mother Shaw, in South Carolina after the murder of her beloved brother. Introduced to Mother Shaw's churchgoing community, Yolonda --- at first rebellious --- comes to find solace and affirmation in their values and traditions. A few of the congregation offer personal stories, both amusing and moving; and all display and discuss their hats. That's about all the plot and thematic material in Crowns.
During intermissionI told a friend that I wouldn't give Regina Taylor any prizes for playwriting for Crowns when I remembered that I had contributed to one for another of her plays: on the Steinberg New Play Award committee, I voted for Taylor's Oo-bla-dee, which won in 2000. But, though that play also was made of poetic riffs and not much plot, it played with more telling passion. Taylor's irresistible strength is her poetic combination of African-American themes and history with music: World War II conflicts combined with jazz in Oo-bla-dee, andwomen's struggles for recognition presented with gospel in Crowns.
As directed and choreographed by a master of musical storytelling, Marion J. Caffey, who wrote and directed the thrilling Cookin' at the Cookery here and across the country, Crowns is a high-energy crowd-pleaser. Musical director e' Marcus Harper accompanies the cast on keyboards, and an amazing percussionist, Romero Wyatt, does everything but acrobatics as a one-man rhythm section.
Roz Beauty Davis is touching as Yolanda, and sings well but sounded strained on opening night. Stage-grabbing Barbara D. Mills gives a full-throated performance as Mother Shaw. All the women --- including Angela Karol Grovey, Joy Lynn Matthews, LaVon D. Fisher --- have impressive voices and play with solid comic and dramatic skills. Potent-voiced Rob Barnes plays all the male roles and sings and moves commandingly. But the extraordinary vocal talent of Gretha Boston is outstanding even in this cast of powerful voices: Her unaccompanied singing of "His Eye Is On The Sparrow" is worth the price of admission alone.
And then there are the dazzling hats. I rather liked some of the dresses, coats, capes, and robes as well: Emilio Sosa has a good time creating these showy costumes, and the audience reacts accordingly. Dale F. Jordan's big, one-piece set is elaborated by his lighting to engaging effect. All the characters, designs, and stories unite in a series of showstopping gospel numbers that create a concert, a service, and a celebration.
I do have one curmudgeonly rant. Many people love to be led in rhythmic clapping along with the music. I don't. If I am to be treated as one of Pavlov's dogs, I want treats handed me at the same time. Truly pleased audiences, as at a great rock concert, stand and scream excitedly, so there's no need to exhort them to clap along in a set rhythm. And most older audiences get the rhythm wrong anyway.
Crownsby Regina Taylor, directed by Marion J. Caffey, plays Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 4 and 8:30 p.m., Sundays at 2 and 7:30 p.m., through March 20 at Geva Theatre Center, 75 Woodbury Boulevard. Tickets $13.50 to $48.50. Call 232-4382, www.gevatheatre.org