Monday, July 13, 2009

Brimming with Pride

by Regina Taylor, directed by Israel Hicks
Pasadena Playhouse • July 10-August 16, 2009 (Opened, rev'd 7/12)

Regina Taylor’s 2002 play ‘Crowns,’ a loving tribute to African-American women based on the Michael Cunningham-Craig Marberry book of the same name, is now rattling the Pasadena Playhouse rafters in a spirited staging by Israel Hicks, artistic director of L.A.’s new Ebony Repertory Theater, which is co-producer. Taylor conveys the emotional essence of the book, subtitled “Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats,” which is that the self-bestowed “crowns” of these “hat queens” sent a message: we are fashionable, we are devout, we are united, and we have arrived.

Taylor incorporates many direct quotes from the book’s 50 subjects into the play, which is further enlivened with a couple dozen church songs delivered with soaring, take-me-now-Jesus conviction by the six-woman, one-man cast.

“Crowns” has been a huge success in its many mountings and inspired one of its past directors, Charles Randolph-Wright, to adapt another Marberry book for the stage. ‘Cuttin’ Up,’ the book of interviews with African-American men that looked at their lives through the communal setting of neighborhood barbershops, became ‘Cuttin’ Up’ the play, staged here in March 2007. Coincidentally, Randolph-Wright’s 2008 play ‘The Night is a Child’ will follow ‘Crowns’ at the Playhouse.

We can now see that the imitator substantially improved on its inspiration. Where “Crowns” puts us on a pew for a two-hour revival meeting filled with great singing and personalities, “Cuttin’ Up” lets us sit against the barbershop wall to eavesdrop on serious stories with a deep weave and darker resonance. Which is not to say that men inherently have more to say.

Wearing hats to church is a subject rich with dramatic potential. As a character points out early in the play, it carries on an African tradition as it celebrates the only place slaves and freed slaves were allowed to assemble. Taylor has come up with a thin storyline, of a teen awakening to her heritage, upon which to hang her hats, but it isn’t developed enough to shake off the source material’s intrinsic gallery feeling. While the program indicates that the actresses all have single characters, with two exceptions they do not become clear and consistent individuals. Instead, the show works its way through a half-dozen chapters based on church functions (baptism, funeral, etc.) into which characters pop with the randomness of a breeze rifling the pages of a book.

Taylor has given her story another important wrinkle, that traditions such as these (hat-wearing, church-going, community-embracing) persist for a reason, and the resistant younger generation would do well to get on board. The new generation is represented by Yolanda (Angela Wildflower Polk), a nascent Nuyorican Poetess displaced to South Carolina to live with her grandmother, Mother Shaw (the great Paula Kelly in a triumphant return from retirement), following the death of a brother. Although passing the hat tradition to Yolanda seems unlikely to succeed, the writing is on the wall, given the way she proudly clings to an oversized baseball cap.

That Taylor’s script skips over potential dramatic treasure is revealed in a couple of exchanges that briefly offer passage to deeper worlds. Early on, Mother Shaw sings directly to her grandchild. It’s a rare opportunity for eye contact between actors and Hicks, Polk and Kelly make the most of it. Later, Yolanda is caught up in an especially exuberant gospel choir. When she stumbles free from the seething circle of singing she seems imbued with insight, questions, and answers. Rather than plumbing that moment, however, the opportunity to delve into what’s going on with these characters is dropped in favor of continuing the parade of anecdotes from the women in the book, with Polk relegated to watching it like a kid on a curb.

But it’s a helluva a parade, and it’s easy to see why it’s so popular. This cast – all making their Playhouse debuts – is excellent. In addition to Polk and Kelly, the other women are Sharon Catherine Blanks, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Suzzanne Douglas and Ann Weldon, with Clinton Derricks-Carroll playing all the men. Derricks-Carroll has a slight advantage, since his characters are recognizable by their function: fathers, husbands and preachers. It seems as though all his numbers are stand outs, with “That’s All Right” being the first one to raise the Playhouse roof. By the end of the two-hour, intermissionless production, the ceiling will settle back down. But, through August 16, it will stay at a rakish angle, giving the California landmark's roofline the dip of a flirtatious fedora over a come-hither smile.

WITH Sharon Catherine Blanks, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Clinton Derricks-Carroll, Suzzanne Douglas, Paula Kelly, Angela Wildflower Polk, Ann Weldon MUSICIANS Eric Scott Reed (piano); Derf Reklaw (percussion), Trevor Ware (bass) PRODUCTION Edward E. Haynes, Jr., set; Dana Rebecca Woods, costumes; Lap Chi Chu, lights; Cricket S. Myers, sound; Linda Twine/David Pleasant, arrangements; Eric Scott Reed, musical direction/additional arrangements; Keith Young, choreography; Gwendolyn M. Gilliam/Lea Chazin, stage management

Adapted from the book by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry, co-produced with Ebony Repertory Theatre

PHOTO: Vanessa Bell Calloway, Ann Weldon, Angela Wildflower Polk, Paula Kelly, Suzzanne Douglas, Sharon Catherine Blanks and Clinton Derricks-Carroll, foreground. (Craig Schwartz)