By Shannon Lowry

Killeen Daily Herald

It's time to raise your hands, raise the roof and get ready for Judgment Day because the church-going women of small-town South Carolina are going to belt you back to the Bible in "Crowns," opening Friday for a two-weekend run at Vive Les Arts in Killeen.

Based on a book by the same name, this theater piece – infused with simply stunning gospel and rhythm and blues music – revolves around Yolanda, a young black girl growing up in New York City, whose brother is tragically shot and killed on the mean streets.

The girl's mother wants desperately to protect her daughter from the same terrible fate, so she packs her off to live with her grandmother in the Deep South.

Yolanda meets her grandmother and a host of other church-going ladies who spin stories about their upbringing in Carolina – and conspicuous about their upbringing is that these proud black women have always adorned themselves with fabulous hats.

Now, we're not talking about some quiet little hats with no pizazz. These ladies are queens – solid pillars of their community – and their hats are their crowning glory. These ladies don't just praise the Lord, heaven's no, they raise him up and hold him on high in brilliant yellow feathers and decorative, dazzling beads, firehouse red felt and flower-studded blue silk.

"This is a fascinating story," said VLA director Eric Shephard. "These are strong, powerful matriarchs of their church and their community, who have a lot to offer this young woman, whose faith is bruised from her experiences in the city."

Shephard's eyes lit up when he spoke of presenting short previews of a portion of the play recently for the Harker Heights Chamber of Commerce banquet and the Lifeway Church in Killeen.

"We wanted to take the music out there so people can hear it," he said. "It's extremely moving, powerful stuff. And these women are all amazing ladies. We are fortunate to have such a talented local cast."

Lillian Billie, a former choir teacher at Fowler Elementary in Killeen who taught hundreds, if not thousands, of local kids how to sing during her long tenure, plays Mother Elsie Shaw, the grandmother Yolanda comes to live with. Billie is a member of the local Deliverance and Praise Temple,

Tomika Harris plays Yolanda. Her sister, Tamara Harris of Killeen's Deliverance and Praise Temple, plays flirtatious Jeanette. In real life, the Harris girls are sisters of Chicago Bears defensive tackle Tommie Harris; they will be going to Florida for Super Bowl Sunday to see the Bears play against the Indianapolis Colts. (Harris is injured and will have to sit out the game on the sidelines.)

Rose Short, a member of the local Institute of Divine Metaphysical Research church, plays Wanda, a church lady. Short was a national contestant on "American Idol" two years ago. Wanda Gunther, who works on Fort Hood, plays Mabel, the lady who makes up the "queen hat" rules during the play.

Westside Baptist Church-goer Doris Ellis plays Velma, a funeral director, who makes sure her clients are buried in their best hats.

The only man in the play – Leron Solomon – assumes several roles, from a minister to a husband to a boyfriend to a father. Solomon is a member of Comanche Chapel, also known as the Post Chapel, on Fort Hood. In real life, he is a communications specialist.

Hazel Ragan, Jennie Webster and LaQuita Basnight round out the cast as "saints" or choir members.

"This is more of a theater piece than it is a play or a straight musical," said Shephard. "The story is always at play, but the characters may be speaking to the congregation, speaking to the audience or in the midst of dialogue, they will sometimes break into song. It keeps it interesting. The play keeps coming at you from different directions."

Contact Shannon Lowry at or call (254) 501-7548

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