Returning to McCarter Theatre after 15 years, Regina Taylor’s musical Crowns has been revisited. This adapted production from Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry’s book of the same title allows us to witness “hat queens” and their obsession through the eyes of a high school teenaged girl. Hats are part of a treasured custom for African American women that allows the day of Sabbath to be both holy and stylish. In 1 Corinthians 11:5 NIV: But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head – it is the same as having her head shaved. This is in line with wearing hats to church and Taylor explores this in her musical.
Yolanda (Gabrielle Beckford) lives in Chicago, and after her brother’s death is sent down south to live with her grandmother, Mother Shaw (Shari Addison). Yolanda discovers that her grandmother is a strict, devoutly Christian woman, who, along with her four friends, is a hat queen. It doesn’t take long for Yolanda to realize why her mother fled South Carolina because she’s ready to return to Chicago until she finally bonds with her grandmother.
The ladies explain to Yolanda that African American women brought the ornate hat tradition over from Africa. From those women who have worked as servants during slavery to those of today, they have one day out of the week to rebel from their uniforms and wear embellished hats to church. This tradition has carried on over the centuries, but the hats have become more elaborate. Over time, Mama Shaw brings Yolanda deeper into Christian life below the Bible Belt through storytelling and going church.
Gabrielle Beckford shines as the protagonist. This multi-talented actress dances, sings, raps and recites poetry to music with ease. Her natural charisma draws you into her character ranging from her being a sassy high schooler to an understanding granddaughter. Shari Addison plays her role as the grandmother with precision. Her facial expressions, gestures, and tone while demanding respect from Yolanda hit to the core. When it comes to gospel singing, Latice Crawford owns the stage. Her powerful voice will give you chills. As the only male actor, Lawrence Clayton seamlessly plays the roles of the men in the women’s lives, including Yolanda’s brother.
The mix of gospel, blues, jazz, hip hop, and a subgenre of Kendrick Lamar featuring poetry + jazz/hip hop music lays the groundwork for this musical. Two musicians deliver a truly powerful score. Keyboardist and Musical Director Jared Landon, and drumfolk riddim specialist David Pleasant play music with a strength that binds itself to every scene. The choreography by Dianne McIntyre is fluid as seen in Yolanda’s hip hop dancing and urban mannerisms and in the more soulful and spiritual movements of the older, southern traditionalists.
Actors don African dress, Sunday best, and urban fashion. The urban wear is paired with a red cap and church attire has matching hats. Costume designer Emilio Sosa captures the essence of the African American culture through fashion that paints the stage with vibrant colors. Set designer Caite Heyner and Lighting Designer Bradley King expand the brilliant colors to the stage with LED batons and a railing on the stairs, plus images projected on a back wall curtain. The videos of Chicago brilliantly adds another dimension to the stage.
Taylor’s revisited production of Crowns is an uplifting musical experience that will have you soaring. Writing it from a teenager’s perspective is brilliant and connects the audience with a present-day character that is even more enjoyable for younger audiences. The use of technology and inclusion of modern hip hop makes it very relevant for today. It’s definitely a show you could see twice!
Performances for Crowns run March 13 – April 1 in the Matthews Theatre. Single tickets range from $25 – $97.50 and are on sale now online at mccarter.org, by phone at (609) 258-2787, or in person at the McCarter Theatre Center Ticket Office, located at 91 University Place in Princeton.
Crowns runs 1 hour, 40 minutes with no intermission.