If you’re watching Ken Burns’ “Country Music” series on PBS, you heard Minnie Pearl sharing advice for performers when they face audiences: “Just love them, honey, and they’ll love you right back.” Well, honey, there’s a lot of love coming from New Dawn Theatre Company’s exuberant “Crowns.”
Regina Taylor’s play, which has had a few local productions (some featuring members of this cast), is a loose collection of stories mixed with spirituals and gospel songs. It’s tied together by reminiscences from a young Brooklyn woman named Yolanda, whose family sends her to the South to shape up. She learns — from a sisterhood of five women who may all be the same woman — that church hats may look pretty and delicate, but they do heavy lifting, variously helping to convey sexuality, history, style, protection, status and more.
There’s a hard backbone of truth in “Crowns,” in which one character notes that “church was the only place slaves were allowed to congregate,” and Yolanda ultimately realizes that the so-called hat ladies carry on a tradition of head adornment that goes all the way back to the motherland of Africa. But mostly, “Crowns” is an opportunity to hear outstanding singers, including Jevetta Steele, Jamecia Bennett, Aimee K. Bryant, T. Mychael Rambo and Thomasina Petrus, lift up some of the greatest songs ever sung (“Sparrow,” “Take Me to the Water,” “When the Saints Go Marching In”) in between funny stories, most of which have something to do with a hat.
“I would lend my children before I’d lend my hat,” Bryant tells us. “My children know the way home. My hats may not.” Petrus explains the rules of conduct when appreciating a superior church hat (basically: Don’t touch it!). And, after explaining the fine points of “hattitude,” Bennett blows the roof off the place while wearing an amusingly floppy, feathery chapeau the color of lilacs and the size of a misshapen beach ball.
It feels entirely appropriate that “Crowns,” part of which takes place in a church, is performed in the Summit Center for Arts & Innovation, a former church that still looks very much like one. Director Austene Van makes inventive use of the various nooks and crannies of the sanctuary and deals smartly with transitions between the short scenes, particularly a tender moment when the cast shifts from celebrating a wedding to mourning at a funeral.
It takes a minute to adjust to the acoustics, which are a tad echoey for musical theater, but I quickly became used to the sound and even ended up liking how it contributed to the majesty of songs that are overflowing with “joy like a fountain.”