Review: "Crowns" at Long Wharf Theatre

Tara Kennedy

  • Chief Connecticut Theatre Critic
  • Connecticut Critics Circle

There is something about gospel music that I find irresistible: It’s uplifting and redeeming; it moves you to tap your foot or clap your hands.  Mix that with blues and hip hop and you have the multi-generational musical story, Crowns.  Inspired by the book, Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats, Regina Taylor creates and directs a musical jubilee that brings to life the portraits of six African-American women through triumphant song, movement, story, and, of course, hats. First performed in 2002, the Long Wharf production is a revision of the original, updated in conjunction with Emily Mann’s McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton where Crowns was first produced.

Crowns is a musical celebration seen through the eyes of a young African-American woman, Yolanda (Gabrielle Beckford). After the murder of her brother, she is sent to visit her grandmother, Mother Shaw (Shari Addison), who lives in South Carolina: a world away from Yolanda’s home in the rough Englewood neighborhood of Chicago. Down south, she meets Mother Shaw’s community of strong, warm, and vibrant Black “hat queens” – Jeanette (Rebecca E. Covington), Velma (Latice Crawford), Wanda (Stephanie Pope), and Mabel (Danielle K. Thomas) – who all radiate passion and wisdom.  At first, Yolanda can’t imagine how she and her grandmothers’ world could have any overlap, but as she hears the stories of her grandmother and her friends - all through the memories sparked by their hats – she comes to understand her grandmother’s perspective and her own heritage.

Photo: T. Charles Erickson

Photo: T. Charles Erickson

Each performer brings vocal chops to this show that’ll send your soul soaring.  Many of the pieces are gospel and traditional songs, with some original works peppered in, and these ladies (and lone gentleman Lawrence Clayton, who plays a multitude of male characters) give their all in their performances of these songs and stories; the power in their vocal performances is downright infectious.  And the on-stage musicians! These two dudes rock the space and add to the positive vibe of the show.

Emilio Sosa’s lovely hats accent the shining personalities of the characters wearing them. Scenic design by Caite Hevner is simple with fun touches like the overhead hat-shaped lighting.  Critics of the earlier version of this show lamented the lack of cohesion between the stories, and there is still some of that in this updated rendition, but not enough to take away from the quality of the overall production. One technical issue I had was with the sound; for some reason, some of the actor’s spoken lines were difficult to hear, so I did not always hear the end of the actors’ lines, which is a shame because there are some great witticisms in this script.

But despite those few issues, overall, it is a worthwhile production with universal appeal due to its blending of musical styles, vivacious energy, and variety of personal tales.