by Zaire Saunders
“Your crown has been bought and paid for. All you must do it is wear it.” – James Baldwin
Adapted from the book by Craig Marberry and Michael Cunningham, “Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats,” the play “Crowns” comes to the Bay Area Sept. 9, running through Oct. 6, 2023 at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek, California.
Directed by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, who has numerous production credits under her belt, “Crowns” illustrates the practice of wearing extravagant hats to church “My role as director is to understand the playwright’s intent, the actors’ intent and the designer’s intent and the audience’s,” said Sonnenberg, “so the most challenging part is making the story simple and enjoyable.”
The plot of the play revolves around Yolanda, a youth fleeing – by choice or by force – from her troubled past that has left her feeling alone, lost and like her sense of being is at odds with the world. She ends up in the South – a common tale in the Black community.
What is new and fresh about “Crowns” is the centering of Black womanhood through song and dance – most of it gospel music, but none of it lacking the power to make you clap your hands and tap your toe to the familiar hymns. If you aren’t all caught up on your gospel tunes, “Crowns” does a great job of infusing the dramatic moments portrayed by the actors with the uplifting spirit of God, legacy and humor told through tear-inducing testimonies from the extraordinary cast.
“We weren’t allowed to enter other spaces, so we are going to look our best. Dressing up is a part of Southern Black culture,” says Sonnenberg. The point is made apparent through each story.
“I strutted in and bought my hat and strutted out!” Juanita Harris’s character Mother Shaw exclaims as she recounts going to a previously whites-only store after social integration was finally won. A small moment reminding us of when and where the play takes place. Helping to bring the reminder to the audience that this story of wearing your crown for yourself has social meaning in a racist society.
The cohesiveness of the play was retained through the monologues delivered to the audience and, based on my interpretation of the play, to Yolanda, who by the end of it comes to terms with the crown she must inevitably wear as a Black woman. Each woman played their role in relatable ways, causing the audience to chuckle and cheer throughout.
By the end of the musical, an African motif, which was used to open the play, emerges as the cast baptizes Yolanda, finally freeing her of the strife she has carried since the start of the show, and embedding herself into the legacy of Black folk who know when and how to put on or adjust their crowns.
If you want to be pulled through an engaging, oftentimes tear-inducing play with terrific acting and soul-filling music told through the church, this play is for you. The story of Black empowerment will leave you feeling satisfied. “Crowns” plays at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek from Sept. 9 – Oct. 6, 2023.
Zaire Saunders is the copy editor and reporter for the SF Bay View Community Journalism Program, which is funded by the California State Library.