Reviewed by Will Stackman
The range of holiday theatre fare in Boston has broadened this season with the addition of Regina Taylor's adaptation of Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry's oral history and photodocumentary about the place of the "church hat" in the life of Southern Black women. "Crowns" draws its dialogue mostly from interviews in the book, but Taylor has added a narrative which has a Brooklyn teenager, played by Heather Fry, sent down South to live with her grandmother played by Fulani Hayes after her beloved brother is shot by a friend. This slight throughline fortunately doesn't interfere with the real voices which form the bulk of the show. A younger woman from the South would probably have been more dramatic choice than the obvious cultural conflicts between Yolanda the rapper out of place in rural Sothe Carolina and Mother Shaw, a praying woman. Taylor incidentally is currently doing the book for the much anticipated musical "The Color Purple" about to open on Broadway.
The show actually starts with Hayes wearing white Gold Coast African garb singing in Yoruba joined by Darius Omar Williams, who plays all the male roles in the piece. The rest of the cast follws in her dance as fellow "orishas" singing "In the Morning When I Rise." All the songs in "Crowns" are familiar gospel tunes and hymns, traditional enough to be known by just about everyone in the audience. Music director Evelyn Lee-Jones at the keyboard supplies an authentic Sunday-go-to-meeting sound backed by energetic percussion. Most of the cast have done their share of musical shows and/or sing regularly with small groups as well as in church. Michelle Dowd(Mabel), whose watchword is "Don't touch the hat!" was seen last season in "Homebody Kabul" as an Afghan and in "The Story" as a newspaper editor, and will next be seen as Barbara Jordan in "The Voice of Good Hope" at the Theatre Cooperative. Jacqui Parker (Wanda), Norton, IRNE, and StageSource awardee, is founder of the Boston African American Theatre Festival, where her play "Dark as a Thousand Midnights" will premiere in January. Merle Perkins (Velma) has numerous musical theatre credits and IRNE nominations. Velma has the showiest number in "Crowns" as she winds up on "His Eye is on the Sparrow" mixing bel canto and blues. Mikelyn Roderick (Jeanette), an Emerson grad headquartered in L.A., has worked nationally singing backup, is back in Boston for this show.
Fry, a Princeton grad now breaking into the Boston theatre scene, was last seen in Animus Ensemble's sold-out run of "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide ..." Hayes is a veteran of numerous local productions as well as performing one woman shows and singing vocals for some of Boston's prominent jazz musicians. Williams was in "Hamlet" this summer on the Common and in last year's African American Theatre Festival. All in all director Lois Roach, a Norton Awardee for the Lyric's "The Old Settler," has recruited some of Boston's finest talent for this show and used them all to good effect. She and the cast get superb millinery and costume support from Susie Smith, who returns to the field with this show. Experienced Lyric designers, Brynna Bloomfield (Set) and Eleanor Moore (Lights) have created a simple but effective environment for the show, with keyboard and drums on a balcony above patterned floor of the acting area.
Besides adding the minimal storyline to the show, Taylor has also tried to keep an awareness of the African roots for Black Southern church practices in the background of various interchanges. Though it's not emphasized, each cast member starts the show with designated "orisha" or guiding spirit from the West African tradition, with such aspects as wisdom, fire, storms, etc. reflected in the predominant color of their costumes. Williams, who of course plays the minister in church sequences, is Elegba, the Orisha of the crossroads. The various rituals of a Pentacostal Sunday service have clear parallels to tribal practices, but it all comes back to adornment as a sign of respect. As the opening song of the second half puts it, "When I've Done the Best I Can I Want My Crown." The elaborate headgear for church is a wish for eternal glory. The cast is very comfortable with the gospel style of the show, bringing their own particular traditions to various numbers. The result is an entertaining and enlightening show, sharing another important part of the African American tradition with the wider community. "Crowns", which had its start at the McCarter before it moved on to the Second Stage in NYC, seems likely to become a staple of repertory theatre wherever diversity is actively being sought.