Long Wharf, New Haven: The passionate rhythm of gospel music has strong Southern roots in the African American Christian Church. Yolanda, a young black woman whose brother has been shot to death, is sent by her mother to her grandmother, Mother Shaw, down South to deal with the loss. Yolanda is bitter and obstinate. She wants no part of her grandmother’s church-going rituals, especially that of wearing outrageously elaborate hats.
While Mother Shaw and friends belt out the lively spiritual music that raises the roof at Long Wharf’s main stage theater, Yolanda, dressed in fatigues and a black leather jacket, counterbalances gospel with equally heartfelt hip-hop and rap. The teen resists every attempt to cooperate, let alone accept the ways of her cultural past. Yet Mother Shaw and friends let her know that she needs to know her past before she can know who she really is and before she can move forward from this terrible tragedy.
Written and directed by Regina Taylor, who adapted the play from the book by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry, this production of Crowns features such a vocally strong and high-spirited cast that it’s impossible not to get caught up in the community it creates, which extends well beyond Yolanda. This critic sat next to a black woman who purchased a ticket for herself and her teenage daughter. This might have been the case for others, because there was a nice mix of young and old sitting in the audience. There was a diverse audience as well in the jam-packed house.
As the play progresses through its one hour and 45 minute run with no intermission, Yolanda learns about the tragedies her family and their friends have endured. Essentially, a personalized version of a black history lesson emphasizes the importance of the Sunday hats these women wear to Sunday service. They consider them signs of rebellion, and they wear them proudly as their crowns.
There are two musicians on stage throughout the performance. A keyboard/guitarist and a drummer who captures the heartbeat of the black movement then and now soars, through the show. In addition to the musicians, there was only one other male in the show. Lawrence Clayton played “man.” He was the minister as well as all other male roles. Gabrielle Beckford plays Yolanda with just enough of a hard edge to make her character street-smart, yet vulnerable. Shari Addison as Mother Shaw captures the essence of tough love with an emphasis on love, while Rebecca E. Covington, Latice Crawford, Stephanie Pope and Danielle K. Thomas delight the audience with their incredible vocals, stunning costumes, and radiant poise as they strut their hats. No wonder they are hat queens.
This is one of the shows with songs like “When the Saints Come Marching In” and familiar gospel songs that stir the soul and get the audience clapping to the beat. It plays through May 13. Box office: 203-787-4282.
Joanne Greco Rochman was a founding member of the Connecticut Critics Circle and is currently an active member in the American Theatre Critics Association. She welcomes comments. Contact: [email protected]