March 21, 2018

An African American Teenager Finds Her Heritage in “Crowns”; Regina Taylor’s Uplifting Musical Returns to McCarter Theatre

“CROWNS”: Performances are underway for “Crowns.” Directed by playwright Regina Taylor, the musical runs through April 1 at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre. From left: Wanda (Stephanie Pope); Mother Shaw (Shari Addison); Jeanette (Rebecca E. Covington); Velma (Latice Crawford); and Mabel (Danielle K. Thomas) immerse Chicago teenager Yolanda (Gabrielle Beckford) in their community, history, and “hattitude.” (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Yolanda, an edgy Chicago teenager, is grieving over the loss of her brother, who has been shot. She has been sent to South Carolina to live with her grandmother, Mother Shaw, who introduces Yolanda to a group of women at her church. Each of these women has a unique life story — and hat, or “crown.”

Crowns is playing at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre. For its 2002-03 season McCarter commissioned the show from playwright Regina Taylor, who has updated the script for this production, which she has directed. The revisions include changing Yolanda’s home from Brooklyn to Chicago, and giving her a musical language consisting largely of hip-hop. This iteration of the musical previously played Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in 2012.

The show is based on Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry’s photography book Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats. The volume features quotes from interviews in which the subjects discussed the significance of their hats.

“Sundays are a precious gift to hardworking women … if the woman is African American, she has some fancy hatboxes on a shelf in her closet,” Maya Angelou writes in the book’s foreword. “She leaves home and joins the company of her mothers and aunties and sisters and nieces and daughters … they stroll up and down the aisles of the church, stars of splendor, beauty beyond measurement.”

Initially, Yolanda is the only character wearing a hat: her baseball cap. There is a sense that she has not yet earned the right to wear her hat, by understanding the importance of doing so. Eventually the other characters’ “crowns” are lowered from above the stage.

Yolanda tells us that her mother has sent her to South Carolina in the hopes that Mother Shaw can “open my eyes.” Mother Shaw initially is ambivalent about her role as caregiver: “I may be a little rusty at this raising up a child thing … but I think we can work it out. Though there’s got to be some rules.”

The lively, wry song “The Hat Queen Rules” is an example of deft writing in the show. The title has a dual meaning: “rules” refers to being in command, but also to regulations which one must obey. These include, “never hug a hat queen without leaving space ‘til the hat queen tilts”; and avoid touching a woman’s hat, because “all the time you spend fixing it on your head just right is gone just like that.”

As with the book, the women in the musical share the memories of which their hats are a symbol. One theme of Crowns is the extent to which a cherished object can be associated with important memories or family history, and be part of one’s identity. Taylor’s addition of Yolanda provides a unifying focal point, and a dramatic arc.

Mabel is a preacher’s wife, played by Danielle K. Thomas. She wears hats every Sunday “because I want to set an example. As the first lady of the church, if I came in there in dresses with splits all the way up my leg, then I couldn’t ever tell the young women that this or that is not appropriate.”

Velma, portrayed by Latice Crawford, is a funeral director who often buries women in their hats. She wears her own hat because “When I look at myself in a hat, I see my mother.”

Wanda, who is played by Stephanie Pope, is the granddaughter of a “hat queen,” a woman who owns more than a hundred hats. Her grandmother “wore them religiously. Fur hats, velvet hats, straw hats. You name it, I liked them all.”

Jeanette, who is played by Rebecca E. Covington, cherishes a hat she procured while working in the cosmetics section of a department store. “Some women at church have asked to borrow this hat. But I’d lend them my children before I’d lend my hat.”

Lawrence Clayton is versatile in his multiple roles as Man, who portrays all the men in the show. He most often is seen in the guise of a preacher, though he also portrays — in flashbacks — Mother Shaw’s husband and Mabel’s father.

The production has invited soloists from the community to perform, on a rotating basis. The soloist for this performance was Twanda Muslim, whose rendition of “How I Got Over” was stirring.

The singing by the regular cast is uniformly strong. Each of the performers has an attractive voice and a gift for musical phrasing. The cast members’ voices blend well, and the ensemble numbers are particularly pleasing.

As Yolanda, Gabrielle Beckford nimbly finesses her character’s journey from a tough, grieving outsider to a refreshed member of the community. Her performance is complemented by that of Shari Addison, whose portrayal of Mother Shaw is kindly yet authoritative.

Taylor has given Crowns the structure of a worship service. The scenes are given titles such as “Processional,” and we witness both a funeral and a baptism. Whereas ancient Greek theatre honored the god Dionysus, Crowns explores two branches of spirituality: the Yoruba religion — each character in the musical is inspired by an orisha (spirit) — and Christianity.

The costumes by Project Runway runner-up Emilio Sosa explore the connection between the characters and their orishas, and draw a distinction between Yolanda and the other women. Yolanda is the only character (besides Man) who wears pants, and the camouflage style matches her somewhat combative personality. Her pants are matched in color by her green shirt and black jacket. A red cap is her sole deviation from this color scheme. Green and red are associated with the Yoruba god Ogun, orisha of war and iron.

In contrast to Yolanda’s subdued colors, the dresses — and hats — worn by the other women are vibrant and often shiny. Mother Shaw wears a dignified white outfit. Mabel’s outfit is black and bright red, Velma’s is a metallic purple, Wanda’s ornate dress is gold, while Jeanette’s is a sprightly blue.

Man is inspired by Elegba, the orisha of crossroads; Elegba is associated with the colors red and black. This is reflected in Man’s black suit and red necktie, as well as a vestment he wears in his guise as a preacher.

The musical score juxtaposes Yolanda’s rap idiom against the Gospel songs performed by the others, such as “When the Saints Go Marching In.” At one point Mother Shaw speaks in rhymed dialogue, which represents her efforts to find common ground with Yolanda.

Percussion is integral to the overall sound of the show. Beside music director (and co-composer) Jaret Landon,  who plays piano, keyboard, and trumpet, the only instrumentalist credited is David Pleasant, who is a Drumfolk Riddim specialist. In addition, the actors tap their feet.

Most of the songs either are traditional or have been written by Landon, Pleasant, Deidre Murray, Chesney Snow, and Regina Taylor. The exceptions are “The Hat Queen Rules” (by Fred Carl and Kirsten Childs); “Time to Get Ready” (by Carol Maillard and Louise Robinson); “Run and Tell That” (by Landon and Jade Maya Lampert Smith); and “Too Many Hats” (by Gary Dennis Hines).

As a director, Taylor develops her script’s exploration of immersion in — or self-exclusion from, a community. Her staging frequently places Yolanda at one side of the stage, where she conspicuously is apart from the other women. Early in the show, Yolanda often is alone when she occupies center stage.

Imbued with a sense of ritual, the choreography by Dianne McIntyre further develops this theme. In one dance, Yolanda does not fully participate until the end, when she imitates the movements of the other characters. The moment marks the beginning of her participation in the community.

Rasean Davonte Johnson’s projection design is effective in establishing scenic structure and locations, as well as accentuating the development of Yolanda’s character. Images of stained glass windows represent the church setting, while footage of trains considers Yolanda’s physical journey — from Chicago to South Carolina — as well as her spiritual odyssey.

The projections also permit the audience to read the comments Yolanda is seen typing on her phone. The other women share their stories and thoughts exclusively in an oral form; letting some of Yolanda’s dialogue appear in written form further accentuates her differences from the other women. It also serves to document her emotional development.

Yolanda’s visit with Mother Shaw has taught her to claim her heritage: “The more I study Africa, the more I see that African Americans do very African things without even knowing it. Adorning the head is one of those things … we just know inside that we’re queens. And these are the crowns we wear.” This energetic, inspirational show invites audiences to discover a fascinating aspect of African culture, while witnessing a spirited musical communion.

“Crowns” will play at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre through April 1. For tickets further information call (609) 258-2787 or visit