Girl discovers ‘Crowns’ in church hats

A unique musical stage play titled “Crowns” will be presented by Florida A&M University’s Essential Theatre.

“Crowns” is a play written by Regina Taylor, and evolved from the acclaimed book, “Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats” by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry.

“It’s the story of a young girl sent down south to stay with her grandmother. While there, she ends up finding her identity and realizing that the generational gap that is thought to exist isn’t really that big,” said Karen Brown, 25, a senior theatre performance student from Orlando.

Through Yolanda’s experiences with the other church members she is exposed to bits of black history.

“The characters share history from church to church and use hats as a jump off to start or tell the story,” said the director of the play Valencia Matthews.

The different personalities of churchwomen and their attitudes are reflected through the hats that the characters wear.

“These spiritual figures with hats get her to come into the fold and accept herself as a queen, hence the play’s title – Crowns,” said Toi Whitaker, 22, a senior theater major from Raleigh, N.C.

Whitaker said there was metaphorical value and meaning attached to the work.

This kind of work of art requires meticulous preparation.

“I went to a conference for theatre in New York. Because my character is from Brooklyn, I did lots of observing while I was there – I looked at or noticed people’s mannerisms to try to develop my character,” said Whitaker, who plays Yolanda, the 15-year-old protagonist.

Brown, gives more insight on her character’s personality and the person behind her hat: “I play Jeanette, a sassy and flirty character who never lends out a hat and never lets anyone touch mine,” said Brown. “As a cast we had lots of table discussions and really analyzed the dialogue to determine what we felt the characters were trying to portray based on the script.”

The director worked with them not only as a collective cast, but one-on-one as an acting coach to bring out the genuine and sincere attributes of each character.

As Tartuffe began wrapping up, work on “Crowns” was set in motion.

“We began working in segments back in February, starting with the music, working on the choreographed pieces and working with the book – text of the story — a week before we started incorporating and integrating all the areas,” Matthews said.

For Matthews, one of the most important areas was analysis of the script.

“Analysis is a crucial element for the actors, because they must be able to understand their roles before perfecting them,” Matthews said.

With all the people and work involved it is expected that a challenge or serious problem comes up, but for the cast and directors of “Crowns,” this was not the case.

“We were fortunate enough to not really have any major challenges,” Matthews said.

Johnny Williams from the music department is the musical director and Gaynell Sherrod, an assistant professor of dance, is the choreographer.

“The show has been a collaborative effort, which is good for the music majors, theatre majors and even the students in neither areas who have talent,” Matthews said. “Things like this can be challenging but good. It’s always good to collaborate.”

The play is expected to be a feel-good production that the audience can really relate to.

“Anticipate an evening of sing-alongs, as the show is packed with spirituals and gospel songs that are very familiar to us all, and that we sing almost every Sunday regardless of denomination,” Matthews said.

Matthews expounds on why everyone to attend: “Audiences are going to have an enjoyable evening, recognize individuals in their family and from their churches and really relate.

The play incorporates the crucial two-prong theatre attack of teaching the audience something while still entertaining.”

See the Essential Theatre’s production of “Crowns” March 29 through April 2 at the Charles Winter Wood Theatre at 8 p.m., with 2 p.m. matinee performances Saturday and Sunday.

Ticket prices are $15 for adults, $12 for senior citizens and $7 students and children.

For more information call (850) 561-2425.

Contact Yewande Addie at