"Crowns," the millinery retrospective about African American women and the caps, turbans and straw hats that adorn their heads on all-important occasions, is back for yet another engagement at Arena Stage. The show, the most popular Arena's Kreeger space has ever housed, percolates on an abundant supply of goodwill, courtesy of an ebullient cast and an equally high-octane roster of gospel songs.
It's a perfectly harmless evening, sweet-tempered and nostalgic, and if you enjoy perky chitchat further enlivened by rousing church music, the production will not disappoint you. But don't expect too intense a rendezvous with black culture. Although there is the occasional snippet of guided-tour-type detail -- "The idea of adorning oneself for worship is a holdover from African tradition," the audience is told -- the slight "Crowns" is more concerned with glorification than dramatization.
Adapted by Regina Taylor from a book of photographs by Michael Cunningham and reminiscences collected by Craig Marberry, the play imposes a modest structure on the testimonials of women about their hats. (A new follow-up piece, "Cuttin' Up," about black barbershops, is to be unveiled to the world this season at Arena.) The dialogue, delivered from the church pews and mortuary galleries that are suggested by Dale F. Jordan's spare set and lighting, serves as little more than embroidery for the play's simple conceit. "I'm going to meet the King," one of the devout church women says, "so I've got to look my best."
What story there is has to do with a young hip-hop girl (Roz Beauty Davis) from New York who is instructed on the finer points of fancy headwear after being sent to live with relatives in South Carolina. Since jagged edges are nowhere to be found in "Crowns," the play offers only the mildest humor -- and has no cumulative power. It's more a scrapbook than anything else, a notion that's reinforced in the chapter headings -- "Morning Service," "Baptism," "Funeral" -- projected onto the back wall of the set.
The approach works best when "Crowns" goes to church, where the energy of the piece meshes naturally with the rhythms of the service. In some other scenes, though, the play takes on a draggy quality. The last 20 minutes of a nearly two-hour performance (without intermission) feels too much like an overextended summation.
As one might expect, the evening's effectiveness depends greatly on a liberal application of effervescence. Here's where the production earns its stripes. This latest incarnation of "Crowns," directed and choreographed by Marion J. Caffey, was developed at regional theaters in Buffalo and Rochester. (The first production at Arena, in December 2003, was directed by Taylor and was revived there last summer.) Caffey elicits the requisite vivacity from the performers, and especially from the trio of Angela Karol Grovey, LaVon D. Fisher and Joy Lynn Matthews. Gretha Boston, a Tony winner for her work in the 1994 revival of "Show Boat," exudes a creamy craftsmanship in a strong a cappella solo. Davis, Barbara D. Mills and Rob Barnes, the last serving as an all-purpose male figure, are assets as well.
The actors are accompanied by a polished pair of musicians, Romero Wyatt and e'Marcus Harper. As for the hats the performers spend so much time celebrating: Well, they fit the bill, but only just. They're not that interesting to look at. In this regard, they're a match for the occasion. With "Crowns," you do at times find yourself wishing for something with a bit more dazzle.
Crowns, by Regina Taylor, adapted from the book by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry. Directed and choreographed by Marion J. Caffey. Set and lighting, Dale F. Jordan; costumes, Emilio Sosa; sound, Rich Menke; music direction, e'Marcus Harper; original music arrangements, Linda Twine. Approximately 1 hour 45 minutes. Through Aug. 7 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Call 202-488-3300 or visit www.arenastage.org.