Crowning Glory: Gospel musical is uplifting and entertaining

The relationship between black women and their hats is explored in Crowns, an uplifting, enlightening and entertaining musical written by actress-playwright Regina Taylor, and now playing through Sunday at the Carnival Studio Theater in the Adrienne Arsht Center in Miami.

While many people only don a hat for warmth or to shade their eyes from the sun, hats hold a far greater significance for devout, traditional church-going black women. Their hats, or crowns, as they call them, are symbols of personal pride, status, and their desire to adorn their heads in worship.

The non-linear story is told through the eyes of a Brooklyn teen sent to live with her grandmother in South Carolina after her brother is murdered. There, she becomes connected to her heritage through the women she meets at her grandmother’s church, and comes to understand the identity they express through their hats.

Crowns is an impressionistic musical integrating rap and gospel, utilizing many classic hymns and spirituals. At times, the atmosphere on Wednesday night resembled a rousing church service, with the opening night audience voicing affirmations, swaying in their seats and clapping along.

Tony Award-winner Melba Moore delivers a dynamic performance, holding notes for an eternity before hitting them out of the stratosphere.

Moore’s star power still allows the other performers to shine. Christina Alexander is especially moving in her rendition of His Eye is on the Sparrow, her voice pure and soulful.

Carbonell Award-winning actress Lela Elam is hysterical as a devout preacher’s wife, giving tips on hat etiquette and talking about her role as first lady of her church. Elam’s performance is proof that she can fully inhabit any character and bring her to life.

Don Seward, who plays all the men in the women’s lives, has the soul of a preacher, and it all comes out in his rich voice. Jazz vocalist Paulette Dozier and actress Yaya Brown are both terrific singers who turn in vivid portrayals of proud women. Chiquila Brown, who plays Brooklyn teen Yolanda, holds her own with the cast of veterans.

The lighting by Ron Burns enhances the mood of the play, as does the set, a series of platforms adorned with hat racks filled with the characters’ ornate crowns.

This production of Crowns is a collaboration between the Adrienne Arsht Center and M Ensemble, South Florida’s oldest theater company, known for their productions of August Wilson plays and for bringing work detailing black culture to local audiences. Crowns fits in perfectly with that mission.

Crowns runs through Sunday, Feb. 6, at the Carnival Studio Theater at the Adrienne Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami. Performances are Thurs. through Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. 305-949-6722. arshtcenter.org.

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