‘Crowns’ honors African-American culture and traditions

By Liz Keill

PRINCETON, NJ – The musical “Crowns” at McCarter Theatre is a tribute to the women who wore fancy hats (and unquenchable spirit) to African American churches on Sundays.  It spans the changing times, from African rituals to slavery to today’s rebellion and determination. A quote from Jeffrey C. Stewart notes, “A hat heightens the body, but it also elevates the soul.”

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Hats were more than just an accessory; they were a statement of the beauty and presence of black women, especially at a time when the color barrier was strong and the ‘invisible’ work-day world didn’t allow for self expression. The fluid mix of hip-hop and gospel music allows the musical to span time and space.

Primarily a musical, with everything from “When the Saints Go Marching In” to “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” the seven performers capture the soul-searching journeys of pain, suffering and joy. The ‘Sparrow’ song, sung with fervor by Letice Crawford, brought  many audience members to their feet.  The spiritual-like number was made popular by the great Ethel Waters in the 1950s.

Lawrence Clayton, as the one male in the ensemble, smoothly shifts from priest to bridegroom to Yolanda’s brother, who had been murdered. He merges with and often leads these outstanding women.

Shari Addison is Mother Shaw, mostly in charge of this diverse group, who takes the 18-year-old Yolanda under her wing.  Garielle Beckford as the young, rebellious girl is initially lost and resentful, but eventually comes around to admire and join this assembly of hats and ‘crowns.’

Rebecca E. Covington plays Jeanette in striking style.  Stephanie Pope as Wanda dons a becoming hat, then turns it inside out for an equally stunning change. Danielle K. Thomas as Mabel swirls and stomps in time with it all.

The cast is accompanied by Jaret Landon on piano, keyboard and trumpet and David Pleasant, a Drumfolk Riddim Specialist. Playwright Regina Taylor has directed this taut, pulsating production that keeps the audience engaged every step of the way. The adaptation is by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry.  Choreographer for the dance movements is Dianne McIntyre.

Caite Hevner’s set design includes a long, curving staircase, especially effective towards the end, when the women, all in white gowns and hats, climb the stairs for a stirring finale. Costume design by Emilio Sosa adds an infectious element to this dazzling production.

“Crowns” continues at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton through April 1. For tickets, call 609-258-2787 or visit mccarter.org.