By Vicki Weisfeld
Fifteen years ago, McCarter Theatre premiered Regina Taylor’s original Crowns, which has become one of the country’s most-produced musicals. Saturday, March 17, was opening night for the Princeton theater’s entirely new version of Crowns, again written and directed by Regina Taylor, on stage until April 1. It’s a feast for eyes and ears.
McCarter artistic director Emily Mann describes the production, which is adapted from a book by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry, as “a joyful, brilliant expression of the past and present lives of African-American women.” Although life circumstances differ, the emotional subtext of Crowns is universal, and the production offers a rousing, end-of-winter uplift.
If you recall the original Crowns, you’ll remember the title refers to the extravagant hats worn by African-American women, especially to church, and you’ll appreciate the new set design that imaginatively incorporates hats by the dozen.
Much more than a tale about headgear, Crowns remains a story about attitude and about asserting individuality when society wants you to be invisible. The hats are a touchstone for memory too, enabling their wearers to reconnect with past experiences, with failures and triumphs. Taylor has said that “hats reveal and they conceal,” and in her play, they do both.
Taylor has brought the play into the present by combining the hip-hop of the 17-year-old Chicago girl Yolanda (played by Gabrielle Beckford) with the gospel of her South Carolina grandmother, Mother Shaw (Shari Addison). Yolanda is sent to stay with her grandmother after her brother is murdered in a drug deal gone bad. However, she’s impervious to the support and love offered by her granny and the women of the community, the Hat Queens. “Talk about it,” they sing, but Yolanda won’t.
Loosely structured around the elements of a church service, the women cast members (Rebecca E. Covington, Latice Crawford, Stephanie Pope, and Danielle K. Thomas) display their skills as lively story-tellers and singers. Crawford brings down the house with her rendition of “His Eye is on the Sparrow.” Any of them could teach a master class in movement. The one male cast-member (Lawrence Clayton) plays multiple roles, donning different personalities as easily as his different hats.
Providing the propulsive energy for the almost non-stop music are Jaret Landon on keyboards and trumpet and David Pleasant on percussion. Alas, the “accompaniment” sometimes overpowered the singers. The production makes fine use of projections, which transform the single set from Chicago’s streets, to Mother Shaw’s church, to a South Carolina high school, and much more. Parts of Yolanda’s raps are projected in chalk letters too.
Production credits to Caite Hevner (set design); Dianne McIntyre (choreography); Jaret Landon (music direction/original composition); Diedre Murray (original composition/arrangements); Chesney Snow (original composition); Emilio Sosa (costumes); Bradley King (lighting); Robert Kaplowitz (sound design); Rasean Davonte Johnson (projections); J. Jared Janas and David Bova (wigs, hair, and makeup).
McCarter Theatre is easily reached from New York by car or train (New Jersey Transit to the Princeton Junction station, then the shuttle train into Princeton. The shuttle ends a short walk from the theater and the university’s new arts district, as well as two new restaurants.
For tickets, call the box office at 609-258-2787 or visit the ticket office online.