Jan. 31, Feb. 1-2, 7-9, 8 p.m.
Feb. 10, 3 p.m.
Footlight Players Theatre
20 Queen St.
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' 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 Street theater.
Crowns is about Yolanda, a young black girl sent 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.
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.
While Patricia 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. 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, but it struck me as slightly hollow. 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 Theatre.
And ladies: Don't forget your crowns.