The Footlight Players opened Crowns last Thursday. Our critic, Elizabeth Pandolfi, took some time away from her busy getting-ready-to-get-married schedule to send us this review. —J.S.
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Some African-American women have such gorgeous dignity that it’s quite difficult not to notice your own posture leaves something to be desired, and that your outfit, which you didn’t so much care about at home, could be a lot more put together.
The Footlight Players’ production of Crowns is a celebration of African-American identity using hats — church hats, that is, the feathery, flowery, wide-brimmed kind — as its major vehicle. But I have to say what struck me most of all at this performance was the incredible grace and, yes, dignity of its six actresses and single actor.
Whether they were dressed in traditional African garb or contemporary, colorful church-going wear, singing gospel songs or listening as others sang, I have rarely seen quiet pride conveyed so subtly yet powerfully as it is within the walls — and hats — of Footlight’s tiny Queen Streer theater.
If you’re wondering what Crowns is about, besides hats, here’s the loose plot: A young black girl named Yolanda is sent down South to live with her grandmother after her brother is murdered in Brooklyn. She’s a ghetto-fied girl, wearing an oversize UPS jacket, Timberlands, and a sideways baseball cap with posture and facial expressions to match.
Her grandmother and four other women tell Yolanda stories and sing songs about what their hats mean and gradually Yolanda is able to let go of her grief for her brother and find herself. There are lots of singing songs, lots of praising Jesus, and of course, lots of wearing hats. They adorn the stage. Hung one after the other on wooden scaffolding, they cover the actors’ heads and even the heads of those departed souls who are just as much a part of Crowns as the actors.
There is a strong sense of interconnectedness on the stage, so much so that I found myself believing these people must be friends in life as well as on stage.
There is one exception to this comfortable dynamic: Yolanda, the lost, grieving young person with no real sense of self. Both the director, Henry Clay Middleton, and Salynthia Mason, who plays Yolanda, succeed admirably in showing how separate Yolanda is from the older generation, because she believes she shares nothing with them.
The first scene is Yolanda doing a jarring rap that gives us the plot background: how she came to be with her grandmother and what happened to her brother. When this is done, Yolanda slouches back to her “I don’t care” pose, so familiar in the halls of high schools and waits with a pout full of attitude.
Then, in what turned out to be my favorite number of the whole show, the rest of the cast walked onto the stage in traditional African clothing and sang “In the Morning,” a beautiful, slow, rich tune even more welcome after the harsh notes of Yolanda’s rap song. The voices are all good in this play, but those of Patricia Jones, who plays Yolanda’s grandmother, and John Smalls, who plays the various male characters, are exceptional.
While Jones doesn’t look like a grandmother, her smooth, feminine, powerful voice conveys all the wisdom and Zen-like peace that, one hopes, does come with age. She is the anchor, not only for Yolanda as her link to the past and to her heritage, but for the female cast as a whole.
Smalls is excellent in his roles as a zealous preacher, an angry husband, or a caring father, with a skilled voice that is adept in handling both euphoric joy and deep sorrow. Smalls can also look just as natural as an African leader, walking out of the sunrise, as he can in the role of an African-American gardener.
Crowns is really about continuity. The director and cast convey it artfully from the first song to last. As the women tell stories about their hats and the times, people, or relationships they signify, Yolanda finds herself — the only problem is, it happens rather abruptly.
While Mason conveys the transformation beautifully, with a total change of posture and facial expression, I was a little surprised to see how sudden that change was. The only other issue I have is with the ending: The story culminates with Yolanda’s baptism in a river, which acts as the beginning of her new, happy, connected life.
Honestly, I felt a little cheated — with such an opportunity to focus on Yolanda as a newly confident, African-American individual, as a result of a renewed connection to her family and community, why make it so heavily religious?
I can see the metaphor — Yolanda’s baptism is not just baptism into the faith but also baptism into her cultural identity — but nevertheless, it struck me as slightly hollow. I suppose I should have expected such a resolution though, since the hats in the production are classified as church hats.
All that aside, Crowns is a great show, and the actors and director have created a lovely performance. If you’re in the mood for storytelling and beautiful singing, make your way down to the Footlight Players theater.
And ladies: don’t forget your crowns.
Jan. 31, Feb. 1-2, 7-9, 8 p.m.
Feb. 10, 3 p.m.
Footlight Players Theatre
20 Queen St.