lela_elam_web.jpgSpecial to South Florida Times

When you combine an award winning playwright, two accomplished authors, a Broadway star, five of Miami’s best black actors, and a play commissioned by two theaters in New York and New Jersey, the result should be a great theatrical production.

Alas, the high projections and expectations that I harbored for The M Ensemble’s rendition of Crowns, performed last weekend at the Adrienne Arsht Center in Miami, deflated after the first 20 minutes of the play.  I use the word “play” loosely as playwright Regina Taylor obviously wasn’t sure if she wanted her work to be a musical or a play.

In Crowns, little Yolanda, played by theater newbie Chiquila Brown, is sent to a rural town in North Carolina to live with her grandmother, Mother Elsie Shaw (Broadway legend Melba Moore).  While staying with Grandma Shaw, Yolanda learns about the church culture and what it means to adorn your head with a crown, better known as the hats women wear to church.

Now days, a woman is judged by her shoes.  However, dating back to when blacks were finally given their freedom, the way women would show pride in themselves was to wear their best hats to church.  This is where Crowns gets interesting.  There are many different kinds of hats; in different colors, styles, fabrics, and adornments.

An award winning playwright, Taylor has written a script that explains the culture behind those crowns that many of us grew up seeing in church.  That story is quite interesting in that, the four characters – Mabel (Lela Elam), Velma (Christina Alexander), Wanda (Yaya Browne), and Jeanette (Paulette Dozier) – tell their individual stories and are quite colorful in their telling.  They make those crowns come alive.

Taylor should have made sure that her subplot – Yolanda’s story – actually resonated with her audience.  Yolanda, who was very close to her older brother, lost him to gun violence.  She’s grappling with this tragic event when she’s sent to live with her grandmother, but Taylor mainly uses this storyline as filler in the beginning and the end.

What Taylor has here is a great concept gone awry. But Taylor can’t take all of the blame.  After all, she adapted her script from the novel Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry.  Judging by the awesomely bad title, Cunningham and Marberry had not written a novel before Crowns.

The blame doesn’t rest solely with the writers.  It’s the director’s job to make the script come alive in an interesting way.  This is not so for artistic director John Pryor. 

As a general rule of any story, stage, film, or novel, everything and everyone should fall into place and make sense.  A random liturgical dancer in a gospel play may seem like a good idea in theory.  Not so much in reality.  Meanwhile, Pryor’s directing Brown and Moore to sit and stare into space as if in freeze frame just looks tacky.  Shame on Pryor, who holds a master’s degree in theatre from University of Miami.  I  expected better from the decorated director and professor of drama.

Moore’s performance left a bit to be desired.  Being able to hold a note for an entire minute is impressive.  Being past your prime is another story.  Moore’s weak voice and the missing of her cues cannot be ignored.

Being paired with someone as young as Brown doesn’t help either.  Brown has a flourishing voice; more for recording albums than Broadway.   Her casting as little Yolanda strikes me as odd because she is so obviously a grown woman.  Brown should have been one of the crown wearing ladies. Brown and Yolanda aren’t a good fit.

Not so for the rest of the cast.  Dozier, Alexander and Yaya Browne do make those crowns appealing whether adorning their heads or the focal point of a story.  These ladies just needed better material to work with.

Lastly, the stand out actress of the evening is Elam.  Elam is a favorite of mine in South Florida’s Black Theatre Movement.  She brings a special energy to her performances.  Elam’s Mabel, the pastor’s wife of 23 years, is the most comical and entertaining character of this work.

I wanted to love Crowns.  Instead, I left the Ziff Ballet Opera House wishing that the execution of the award winning artists had been more award-worthy.

Kimberly Grant can be contacted at KAliciaG@aol.com.