Hats Make the Woman

Review of Crowns, Long Wharf Theatre

With Regina Taylor’s Crowns, playing through May 13, Long Wharf Theatre shows once again that it’s a great venue for a concert. Crowns has a story but that story is mainly an excuse for many lively numbers, invoking gospel, blues, African folk, and hip hop, some original to the show, some traditional. Each song lets the show’s almost entirely female cast win over the audience. The power of the show is in the singing and it’s wonderful.

 Lawrence Clayton, Stephanie Pope, Rebecca E. Covington, Shari Addison, Latice Crawford in Crowns (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

Lawrence Clayton, Stephanie Pope, Rebecca E. Covington, Shari Addison, Latice Crawford in Crowns (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

After her brother was killed by her boyfriend over drugs in the rough Englewood section of Chicago, Yolanda (Gabrielle Beckford), who tells us her story in an early dramatic rap number, is sent by her mother to her grandmother, Mother Shaw (Shari Addison), in South Carolina. Each woman in the community imparts to the teen a view of how hats make the woman.

 Yolanda (Gabrielle Beckford)

Yolanda (Gabrielle Beckford)

It’s not simply a question of fashion, but of the values that sustain the church-going women, making the rules of how to wear hats and how to bring off a certain self-fashioning not only a question of status but also a community expression. People don’t dress up for themselves, after all, it’s for others and that’s the lesson for Yolanda: how to think of others and of herself in finding fulfillment among them.

As Mother Shaw, Shari Addison possesses a voice of such deep feeling, she immediately establishes the bona fides of this collective. She stands for a sense of spiritual heritage that will serve Yolanda in good stead if she gets onboard.

 Mother Shaw (Shari Addison), foreground, and the cast of Crowns

Mother Shaw (Shari Addison), foreground, and the cast of Crowns

There are plenty of comic moments, as the culture of hats creates friction among the ladies, and even a certain exasperation on the part of the preacher (Lawrence Clayton) who hears that women are avoiding church because “they don’t have the wardrobe.” Clayton, who plays all the male roles, enacts Yolanda’s teen brother in a late flashback—it’s a surprising transformation.

 Wanda (Stephanie Pope), Jeanette (Rebecca E. Covington), Mable (Danielle K. Thomas)

Wanda (Stephanie Pope), Jeanette (Rebecca E. Covington), Mable (Danielle K. Thomas)

Adapted from a book of photographs by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry that portrayed the importance of hats—or “crowns”—in African-American culture, Crowns is rich with a sense of how “a look” and “a sound” combine for theatrical effect. Emilio Sosa’s hats and costumes complement each other well, giving each woman distinctive motifs, supported through songs that tell the tales of their hats.

The distinctions among the ladies as characters can become a little vague, though Stephanie Pope, as Wanda, distinguishes herself as the stickler for rules and lessons. As a vocalist, the stand out is Latice Crawford as Velma, whose show-stopping rendering of “His Eye is on the Sparrow” takes the singing to another level where the passion of faith and showmanship overlap.

 Velma (Latice Crawford)

Velma (Latice Crawford)

Choreography by Dianne McIntyre, with dance numbers the entire cast takes part in, keeps the show lively. Danielle K. Thomas, as dance captain and the character Mabel, is particularly impressive, while Beckford’s Yolanda, when she becomes moved by the spirit of her mentors, steps out in good measure.

The musicianship of musical director Jaret Landon, on piano, keyboard and guitar, and David Pleasant, as “Drumfolk Riddim Specialist,” is an entertainment in itself. Pleasant looks the hardest working man in New Haven during the show, so busy is he with any number of percussive implements, while Landon switches nimbly among instruments and keeps the score remarkably diverse. They are a great strength of this production.

 

 Mabel (Danielle K. Thomas)

Mabel (Danielle K. Thomas)

While the set design is simple, the graceful stairway at the back of the stage is eye-catching, and Rasean Davonte Johnson’s amazing projections, sometimes street scenes, sometimes banners and lyrics, provide a wealth of visual interest and information.

Crowns requires a welcome willingness to follow the songs more than a plot. While Taylor’s script does present a sense of intergenerational difference—thanks in part to Beckford’s wonderfully expressive Yolanda—the key note is one of communal identity. The young girl learns to drop the high hat and to get in vogue with the high hats these ladies sport.

If there’s a better show around town for Mother’s Day, I can’t imagine what it might be.

 Yolanda (Gabrielle Beckford), Mother Shaw (Shari Addison)

Yolanda (Gabrielle Beckford), Mother Shaw (Shari Addison)

 

Crowns
Written and directed by Regina Taylor
Adapted from the book by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry

Choreographer: Dianne McIntyre
Music Director: Jaret Landon
Original Compositions: Jaret Landon, Diedre Murray, Chesney Snow
Arrangements: Diedre Murray

Set Design: Caite Hevner; Costume Design: Emilio Sosa; Lighting Design: Bradley King; Sound Design: Robert Kaplowitz; Projection Design: Rasean Davonte Johnson; Wig, Hair & Makeup Design: J. Jared Janas & Dave Bova; Production Stage Manager: Alison Cote; Assistant Stage Manager: Amy Patricia Stern

Cast: Shari Addison, Gabrielle Beckford, Lawrence Clayton, Rebecca E. Covington, Latice Crawford, Stephanie Pope, Danielle K. Thomas

Dance Captain: Danielle K. Thomas

Musicians: Jaret Landon, piano, keyboard, guitar; David Pleasant, drumfolk riddim specialist

Long Wharf Theatre
April 18-May 13, 2018