By Dave Begel Contributing Writer Published Mar 05, 2016 at 9:03 AM

Almost 50 years ago, led by a white Catholic priest, blacks marched night after night across the 16th Street viaduct, demanding open housing in the city of Milwaukee.

The crossing of that bridge was both a realistic and symbolic message to a city that the old was was not good enough, and it wasn’t going to last anymore.

That same kind of realism and symbolism is what I was left with after seeing opening night of "Crowns" at the Skylight Music Theatre.

This play by Regina Taylor is a warm, funny and honest treatment of the feminine strength that runs from Africa through today. It is brilliant in its conception and spectacular in its production, stage directed by Sheri Williams Pannell and music directed by Chaz’men Williams-Ali.

I am one of those who has a deep belief that art can lead a society to progress, wisdom and health. "Crowns" is a momentous example of the power that art can have and the impact it can create as only art can.

"Crowns" is about the hats that black women wear on Sunday when they go to church. It’s hard to overestimate the important role that the fancy hats played in the role of of these women. The hat was a badge and a refuge and a sign of life and devotion.

"Church was the only place slaves were allowed to congregate," said Mother Shaw, played with joyous abandon by Cynthia Cobb. "And after slavery, there were "whites only’ signs everywhere. So if you had something you wanted to show off and be in style, you’d wear it to church."

The story of the play is about Yolanda, a young woman from Brooklyn whose brother is shot. Her mother sends her to live with her grandmother in South Carolina.

The five older women are worried that Yolanda is growing up without the kind of grounding she should have from her history, stories and values. They share the wisdom from under their hats with the young and troubled woman, and their faith and generosity help turn a life around and restore a lost soul.

This cast of five women and one man are evenly outstanding, capturing their own individualism along with the haberdashery that binds them to each other and to the world around them. They are very funny. The music is glorious. The dancing delightful, and the acting full of both passion and discipline.

The brilliant cast members are Cobb, Lena Van Duval, Raven Dockery, Tasha McCoy, Malkia Stampley, Ashley Levells and Ron Lee.

Here’s why I think this is such a vitally important production.

Skylight has a largely white audience base, but Friday night, it was deeply mixed with both whites and blacks in the audience. But more than an increase in the diversity of an audience is the fact that this play is taking place in the Cabot Theatre.

An argument could be made that the Broadway Theatre Center in the Third Ward is the crucible of Milwaukee theater. It is home to three older and wildly diverse companies: Skylight, Renaissance and Chamber.

To produce and stage a profoundly black play on this site, a play of such resounding joy, is a statement all by itself. It is to the immense credit of artistic director Viswa Subbaraman that "Crowns" has found such a welcoming home.

And the experience of seeing this play is a moving one. Looking around, it was everything that great theater and a great city can be.

On the stage, we had artists sharing their art, inviting each member of the audience along on a journey of joy.

And in the audience – heads bopping together, hands being clapped and knees being slapped – were whites and blacks, sharing a mutual love for what they were watching, what they were hearing and what they were doing.

I readily admit that I might have rose-colored glasses on here. But if so, thank goodness that just by seeing a brave play, there is a glimpse of what our future could hold if we all just decided to let the artists show us the way.

"Crowns" runs through March 26. Information on showtime and tickets is available here.

Production Credits: Director, Sheri Williams Pannell; Music Director, Chaz’men Williams-Ali; Scenic Designer, ruthmarie Tenorio; Costume Designer, Barry W. Link; Lighting Designer, Holly Blomquist; Choreographer, Krislyn World; Sound Designer, Megan Henninger; Stage Manager, Erin Joy Swank.

Dave Begel Contributing Writer

With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.

He's seen Milwaukee grow, suffer pangs of growth, strive for success and has been involved in many efforts to both shape and re-shape the city. He's a happy man, now that he's quit playing golf, and enjoys music, his children and grandchildren and the myriad of sports in this state. He loves great food and hates bullies and people who think they are smarter than everyone else.

This whole Internet thing continues to baffle him, but he's willing to play the game as long as keeps lending him a helping hand. He is constantly amazed that just a few dedicated people can provide so much news and information to a hungry public.

Despite some opinions to the contrary, Dave likes most stuff. But he is a skeptic who constantly wonders about the world around him. So many questions, so few answers.