In Play Reviews

Marilyn Keller, Kelli Bee, Kristin Robinson, Andre' Neal. Photo by Brud Giles.When Brooklyn teen Yolanda (Kelli Bee) and her family suffer an unspeakable tragedy, she is shipped off to South Carolina to stay with her grandmother, Mother Shaw (Marilyn Keller), a strong, no-nonsense woman with a sense of history and a heart of gold.

Yolanda is far from pleased with the arrangement, but in Regina Taylor‘s Crowns, now onstage at Portland Playhouse, she finds she has a lot to learn. Yolanda doesn’t fit in with the high school crowd, but she does go to church with her grandma, where she begins to learn her place in the world through a rich history she never dreamed of.

Kellli Bee as Yolanda in Crowns. Photo by Brud Giles.

She is surrounded and kept safe by Mother Shaw and her wonderful friends–Wanda (Ithica Tell), Jeanette (Julana Torres), Velma (Shalanda Sims), Mabel (Kristin Robinson), and Man (Andre Neal, who assumes all the male roles in the play). For nearly two hours, Yolanda and the audience are treated to the rocking, shouting, jump-for-joy music of gospel, the music that inspired it, and the music it inspires, all in service to the history of the hat!

Shalanda Sims and Ithica Tell in Crowns at Portland Playhouse. Photo by Brud Giles.

African American women in particular take joy in the hat. It’s an important part of their culture. Adorning the head, particularly to meet the King, goes back to the beginning. Thankfully, it is a culture that has endured. Seeing Crowns will teach you why in the most delightful way possible.

Excellently cast, Crowns is adapted by Taylor from the book by Michael Cunningham and Craig Mayberry, and directed and choreographed by Patdro Harris, with musical direction, additional music and arrangements by Chika Kaba Ma’atunde. Ma’atunde plays keyboard with Rob Smith on percussion.

This is a show with great music, amazing dancing, eye-popping costumes (Wanda Walden), and glorious hats. The theatre is filled with them! It’s a lovely story about finding and joining one’s true tribe.

Ten performances were added to Crowns, thus the show continues through April 21.

Marilyn Keller, Andre Neal, and Julana Torres in Crowns. Photo by Brud Giles.

And to see more glamourous hats, arrive half an hour early for the show and visit Just Because Boutique’s beautifully curated show of vintage hats next door. These are the real deal–Aretha Franklin-worthy headpieces worn by some of the bravest women in Portland.


Top photo: Marilyn Keller, Kelli Bee, Kristin Robinson, and Andre Neal. Photo by Brud Giles.

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