“Crowns”: Glory, hallelujah!

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"Crowns" at McCarter Theatre photos: T. Charles Erickson

Fifteen years ago, McCarter Theatre Center commissioned writer/actress Regina Taylor to come up with a show based on a book about Southern black women and the spectacular hats they wore to Sunday services. That show, Crowns, was a joyous celebration of those women and what those hats meant in their lives, flavored with the rousing sounds of gospel music. McCarter now presents an anniversary production of Crowns, updated and directed by Ms. Taylor. It is a pleasure to report that this new production is a rousing, often humorous delight.

"Crowns" at McCarter Theatre photos: T. Charles Erickson
“Crowns” at McCarter Theatre photos: T. Charles Erickson

The story revolves around Chicago-born and bred Yolanda. A girl of the streets, she is tough-looking and tough-acting, with the music of her life not gospel but rap. She is sent to her grandmother, Mother Shaw, in North Carolina for protection. Yolanda feels she has no need and no use for her grandmother’s ways. Mother Shaw and her posse of church ladies know better, and they aim to put Yolanda on the right track by reconnecting her with the entwined histories of black women and black churches.

"Crowns" at McCarter Theatre photos: T. Charles Erickson
“Crowns” at McCarter Theatre photos: T. Charles Erickson

Director Taylor, collaborating with choreographer Dianne McIntyre, has guided her small but strong cast into creating indelible stage characters that ring with truth and spirit. They express themselves through not only traditional gospel songs but original compositions by music director Janet Landon, arranger Diedre Murray, and composer Chesney Snow. The cast is led by the incredible performance of Shari Addison as Mother Shaw and the equally amazing performance of Gabrielle Beckford as Yolanda. These are two strong actresses playing against each other with all the strength and pain their characters bear. They are ably supported by Danielle K. Thomas as a preacher’s wife, Stephanie Pope as a stylish middle-aged woman, and Rebecca E. Covington and Latice Crawford as sassy younger women. Finally, playing all the male characters, Lawrence Clayton holds his own in vocal talent and presence among this group of formidable women.

"Crowns" at McCarter Theatre photos: T. Charles Erickson
“Crowns” at McCarter Theatre photos: T. Charles Erickson

Scenic designer Caite Hevner has come up with an elegant set design enhanced by projections designed by Rasean Davonte Johnson. A few chairs, a bench, some risers, and a sweeping staircase rising from the stage into the rafters become such varied locations as the streets of Chicago, the home of Mother Shaw, and the interior of the church. The costumes of Emilio Sosa are spectacular, especially the white-and-gold outfits in the finale, and of course the amazing hats worn by all the women — except Yolanda; her first “crown” looks just awful on her, but then again that might be on purpose.

While for some the emphasis on redemption through religion may not be to their liking, Crowns provides a rousing evening in the theatre. The opening night audience, including many African-American women wearing their own crowns, was one of the most engaged and enthusiastic I’ve seen in a long time. Go and be moved by this 15th anniversary production of Crowns at McCarter Theatre Center.

Crowns is presented by the McCarter Theatre Center at the Matthews Theatre on the campus of Princeton University through April 1. For tickets and information, visit mccarter.org.