CROWNS by Regina Taylor (CanStage). Runs through December 10. See Continuing. Rating: NN
Crowns wants to convince audiences that it's celebrating the hats that are part of black women's Sunday church-going ritual. But theatrically speaking, this would-be empress has no clothes.
Based on a wonderful photo-essay book by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry , Regina Taylor 's script draws on African, gospel and rap music to paint portraits of various women who know the importance of their millinery. As one character says, they have a sense of hattitude.
Trouble is, Taylor sets up a flimsy plot: the hip, Brooklyn-born Yolanda ( Lisa Bell ) is sent, following the shooting of her brother, to live in a South Carolina town with her church-going granny, Mother Shaw ( Jackie Richardson ). Yolanda spends most of the show sulking about her lot, only to be predictably reborn - in several senses - by the final curtain.
Cameos of various women talking about their hat traditions make up the majority of the show, interviews that spill over into gospel numbers well sung by the cast - everyone has a spotlit turn - and toe-tappingly played by musical director e'Marcus Harper and percussionist Romero Wyatt .
The standout performer is Richardson, whose Mother Shaw has enough heart and generosity to reach from the Front Street theatre to North York. There are also strong contributions by actors Bernardine Mitchell and Toya Alexis , and some striking costume designs - and hats, of course - by Phillip Clarkson .
But there's almost no emotion at the centre of this shout-out work, only a series of snacks that don't add up to a meal. We never feel Yolanda's desire to belong or her sorrow for the loss of her brother, and Taylor rarely draws the other figures or situations in enough detail to make them dramatically rich.
Ironically, given its literary pedigree, Crowns is a chapeau with little soul. Any photo from the sourcebook conjures up more believable hattitude than anything in this production, which is given a bright surface but not much heartfelt truth by director Marion J. Caffey .