For actress Gabrielle Beckford, starring in “Crowns” is both the start of her professional career and a full circle moment. The recent Rider University graduate grew up in New York City and, while she was involved in all types of art from visual to culinary, her first experience as a performer was singing in church. But after a high school teacher cast in “Hair,” Beckford switched her attention from the pulpit to the proscenium. She started studying voice and dance, eventually completing a BFA in musical theater. It seems to be serendipity that her first professional role after college is in “Crowns,” a gospel-infused play Beckford says hits close to home. To learn more about the show and her experience playing Yolanda, both at McCarter Theatre Center and currently at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut, I spoke to her over the phone. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What is “Crowns” about?
GB: “Crowns” is about this young soul, her name's Yolanda and she starts off basically ready to just give up on life and her mother, therefore, sends her down south to be with her grandmother to help her change, because at this point, her mother doesn't feel like she can even discipline her own daughter. So, she sends her down south to help her and at first, of course, she fights against this sort of change or this new reality that she's not aware of.
What role does music play in the show?
GB: It's a real driving force. The music ranges from your ring shouts to African Gullah and it goes all the way to jazz and to hip-hop and to gospel and it's going through this whole spectrum of black music, so you don't just have one genre. It's all interwoven into this beautiful medley of historical black music that influences each and every moment on the stage.
Had you heard of “Crowns” before auditioning?
GB: The funny thing is I never knew about it prior to auditioning and once I started reading the script, I was like, "This is a really interesting and fascinating piece of work. I've never done anything like this." And I found it fascinating how real it was and how relatable it was to even my life, because I know these hat queens that are referenced. I know the type of neighborhood that Yolanda speaks about, because I'm from New York City. I know you've got to be street smart. I could relate to the script so much, so I feel like I could be so much of my authentic self with this script and I just loved that part of it.
What’s your favorite part about performing in this play?
GB: I love, honestly, just being on that stage every night, going on this journey with my castmates. It's never the same each night. We dig deeper and deeper into the script and deeper and deeper into this work and I love the result that it has on audiences. That's why I do this. I love to impact someone's life based on the work that I'm doing on stage. That's the most fulfilling part of it. I want them to have a sense of hope and a sense of community, especially in this day in age. Society seems to have this form of dividing itself. But we need to realize that coming together can help each other and help save our community.