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By Ellen S. Comerford

Not so very long ago, a woman would go shopping in a department store wearing a hat and even white gloves. Hats may be worn today, but for utilitarian reasons -- for warmth, not for decorative purposes.

However, the African-American community still embraces the tradition of wearing beautiful hats to church. A hat, it is said, makes the wearer a queen and the hat, her crown.

The Studio Arena Theatre's current production is the musical "Crowns," written by Regina Taylor and adapted from the book by Michael Cunningham and Craig Maberry.

Directed by Marion J. Caffey, "Crowns" has a small cast of seven. But do not think that they cannot fill the Studio Arena's stage. They fill it with sound, with rousing gospel music sung by amazing voices.

The play opens to a darkened stage with the lonely sound of a train in the distance. We hear the train growing louder, coming closer and closer. On both sides of the stage are hung an array of hat racks covered with large, bright, colorful hats.

The story is told through Yolanda, a modern girl from Brooklyn, who has suffered a severe tragedy. Her brother, to whom she had been very close, has been shot and killed, partly due to the fact that he followed her into a bad situation.

Not knowing what to do about Yolanda, her mother sends her to live with her grandmother in South Carolina. Through her grandmother and her grandmother's friends (the hat queens), Yolanda begins to turn her life around, as she listens to the oral history of African-American women.

The entire cast shines, but from the moment Barbara D. Mills enters the stage as Mama Shaw, it is evident that she possesses one powerful, commanding voice and great stage presence.

Roz Davis as Yolanda is excellent. Rounding out the terrific cast are Joy Lynn Matthews as Wanda, LaVon Fisher as Jeannette, Gretha Boston as Velma, Angela Grovey as Mabel and Rob Barnes as Man.

"Crowns" is full of thumping music and simple wisdom.

At first, Yolanda wants little to do with hats, except for the occasional baseball cap. They are too heavy, too itchy, she claims, and they ruin her hairdo.

As time progresses, she comes to think that the hats are a form of connection. "They connect me to the ancestors who have passed over," she says. "We're queens and these are our crowns."

"Crowns" is a real audience pleaser.

It remains on stage at the Studio Arena Theatre until Jan. 30.Tickets are available by calling 856-5650 or 1-800-77-STAGE or online at www.studioarena.org. The theater is located at 710 Main St. in Buffalo.

Ellen S. Comerford is an artist and free-lance writer from Lewiston.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Jan. 25 2005