The cast of Crowns, being performed at CenterStage theater through March 5. Credit: Rob Kim

Before the start of Crowns, the joyous musical at Baltimore Center Stage running through March 5, director Kevin McAllister stood on stage and told audience members that the show they were about to see was not a “sit back in your set and let others do the work” kind of experience.

With church as the setting and a bevy of stylish, self-assured, hilarious gospel-singing, hat-adorned women as the main characters, he expected people to clap, sing, stomp their feet, laugh and generally “make a lot of noise.”

And so they did. The full house on Feb. 16, which was press review night, even stopped the proceedings mid-performance to give a well-deserved standing ovation to vocal powerhouse Anitra McKinney as Velma.

McAllister, who collaborated with Center Stage artistic director Stephanie Ybarra on the show, says he chose Crowns after “searching over the last couple of years for more pieces that celebrate Black joy.” He found one in the words of Regina Taylor, who wrote the play after reading a picture book called Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry.

The story itself is simple. Yolanda, a young Brooklynite, is sent to live in the south after a family tragedy. There, she meets Mabel, Wanda, Velma, Jeanette, Mother Shaw and Church Lady, who all have big hats to wear, big stories to tell, and big voices to make sure they are heard.   

The lives of these women are filled with the glories of God, the love of family and the fantastic outfits that give them so much pleasure. Their triumphs are wrested from the harsh realities of their lives and the lives of their ancestors, and they are symbolized in the hats they wear.

More than fashion statements, these beautiful outfit-completing toppers symbolize style and success, flirtatiousness and independence, holiness and irreverence, and their ties to the past.  

Early on, Mother Shaw, played by Katrina Jones, explains that church is important because it’s the only place slaves were allowed to congregate. “And after slavery, there were ‘Whites Only’ signs everywhere,” she continues. “So if you had something you wanted to show off and be in style, you’d wear it to church.”

The women talk about how many hats they have, how to hug someone when you’re both wearing big hats, how to store hats, and how to fold a hat so it will fit in a casket. “When I get dressed to go to church, I’m going to meet the King so I must look my best,” says Wanda in one of many lines that earned chuckles from the audience.

If a husband objects to his wife’s hat collection, that’s his problem. These women earned the money to buy their hats, even though for a long time they could only shop in certain stores. When the Whites-only department store finally allowed Black shoppers, they went in dressed in their finest ensembles, opened their perfectly chosen purses, brought out the crisp bills they had brought for the occasion, and walked out proudly carrying their overpriced purchases, thank you very much.

McAllister is co-founder and artistic director of ArtsCentric, a Baltimore nonprofit that trains and showcases artists of color, mostly local people with little stage experience. For Crowns, he put together a stellar cast absolutely vibrating with musical talent, comic timing and charisma, including Asia-Lige Arnold as Wanda, Nikki Owens as Mabel, Ashley Johnson-Moore as Jeanette and Patricia Jones as Church Lady. Ryan Gholson plays a preacher who appropriately lifts up but does not overshadow his flock; dancers Jayme Howard, Quincy Vicks and Candace Foreman add fun and visual interest. 

Yolanda, played by Baltimore School for the Arts graduate Anaya Greene in her first lead role, has a hat of her own – a baseball cap that she wears backwards, signaling her resistance to the old-fashioned values embodied in these women and their high-heeled glamor.  

Of course, Yolanda’s blue jeans and cross-armed poutiness are no match for the high-energy certainty of her new friends, and by the end she relents. But I wanted to know more about why she thought these old-fashioned church ladies were uncool, so that her conversion would have more meaning.

Wanda, Velma, Jeanette, Mabel, Mother Shaw and Church Lady are not immune from hardship and discrimination. Yet the crowns they wear are not the thorns of the suffering, but rather the jewels of the royalty that they are.

If you go: Crowns will be performed at CenterStage theater through Sunday, March 5, and tickets can be purchased here.