Some are tall, stretching for the sky. Others are low, gracing faces with lace and jewels. Many Black women wouldn’t dare walk into church without one. They are church hats, and they grace the heads of matriarchs across the country.
“Crowns” — a musical about the chapeaus and the women who wear them — opens at Baltimore Center Stage on Saturday. It’s produced by ArtsCentric, a color-conscious community theater organization.
Written by playwright Regina Taylor, “Crowns” is based on Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry’s book of the same name that features black and white portraits of Black women in church hats. The show focuses in particular on the character Yolanda (played by Anaya Greene) — a young woman who recently lost her brother — as she visits her aunt. Yolanda’s aunt informs her that in the South, women wear head coverings to church. The musical uses the hats and their prominence to talk about the way Black churches can influence and guide Black women, providing them with a sense of values and community.
“I see church hats as a symbolic praise, a way of honoring God,” said stylist Larry Boggs, a first-time costume designer who is outfitting the play and sourced the titular items from across the area.
“Crowns” director Kevin McAllister estimates that about 40% of the cast is new to production. “I actually performed here [at Center Stage] once before with my choir, but this is like nothing I’ve ever done before,” said Katrina Jones, who plays Mother Shaw in the production. Choirs at Black churches can turn the atmosphere spiritual and jubilant — something Jones is familiar with — so her vocal talent is a necessity for the staging.
Including more Black people in all facets of the theater experience is one of the main goals of ArtsCentric. The organization was started after its founders left Morgan State University “and felt like there was nothing” for Black theater students and their education, said McAllister, who is also ArtCentric’s artistic director.
Their hope is to teach more young people of color to be competitive in the acting industry. They offer educational programs focused on auditions, résumés and ways to build endurance and longevity in a trying industry. By declaring themselves “color-conscious,” ArtsCentric hopes to use theater to show that Black people can play any role.
In their version of the rock opera “Little Shop of Horrors,” more funk aspects were incorporated, said Cedric Lyles, communication manager and a founding member of the team. “We did ‘Next to Normal,’ [a musical about the death of a family member and the struggles of addiction], and that was really a shift to say that, yes, Black people deal with these issues, too,” he said.
“You’ll never see someone do a show like ArtsCentric does a show,” he said. For “Crowns,” that touch included choreographer Shalyce Hemby’s study of the history of Black dance styles for the performance.
Getting to use a large venue like Center Stage is also another important step in preparing budding actors for their careers, and the partnership between the facility and ArtsCentric allows the latter to have free rein over the space. The union began after McAllister met Center Stage’s outgoing artistic director, Stephanie Ybarra, through a group chat and they formed a friendship that proved to be a successful artistic and business collaboration. Together they presented “Dreamgirls” in 2021, which McAllister directed.
“Crowns” was chosen as another worthy performance “because we wanted something that celebrates Black joy,” McAllister said.
Lyles, who now lives in Boston but remains an active member of ArtsCentric, said “it’s all a labor of love” that keeps them going — the love of acting, and love for a city that has created so many artists.
Ideally, the show will inspire even more to put on their acting hat and find a new avenue to express themselves.