There is a wondrous appeal to Crowns that allows its return year after year to sell out crowds despite changing casts, and now even playing in a totally different venue, the historic Lincoln Theater with the wildly popular E. Faye Butler in the winning ensemble. It is undeniably crowd pleasing, genuine, and deeply rooted. That’s what brings the audience back, bringing friends, neighbors, fellow congregants (sometimes busloads), and, of course, family. Having seen every single one of its incarnations, this time accompanied by my Brooklyn-born dance teacher (who can’t wait to bring his mom to see it), I was still moved. The story never gets old, the message transcends any momentary weak spots, the exuberance on stage is matched by the spirit-filled crowd, and Butler as church lady Mother Shaw seals the deal to warrant a revisit…or two.
For the uninitiated few not familiar with the storyline, after a tragic shooting of her fraternal twin brother Teddy, Brooklyn based Yolanda has been shipped down south to finish her high school years with her grandmother Shaw to stay out of harm’s way and potentially wayward influences. The women in her grandmother’s circle share their stories of Sunday morning getting up rituals for church, including sporting their ever-present hats or “crowns.” Volleying back and forth in time, Crowns interweaves the African ancestral legacy of wearing colorful headgear, the influences of slavery on worship and family ties, dealing with loss and grief, and the healing power of love. Actress, playwright Regina Taylor works wonders with the collection of stories in Cunningham and Marberry’s appealing photographic book Crowns. More than a montage of the various stories, however, the production works because it is anchored in Yolanda’s theatrical journey and touches all the bases evoking long-lost memories, laughter, and yes, maybe even a little bit of faith that “trouble don’t last always” and that “everything’s gonna be alright.” That’s what brings us back.
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And then there’s the music, of course. Nothing lifts the spirit like the old spirituals. With powerhouse voices that will bring down the house in blazing glory, the performers stroke melodies, hit incredibly tight harmonies, and wail their way through the old standards and new favorites. E. Faye Butler is the reigning queen of belting out a number until tears come to your eyes. With unshakable stage presence, Butler takes command whenever she hits her mark, engaging you with a wide flashing smile, and with a voice that starts rumbling from her chest cavity opera singer-like before the sound whips out and slaps you senseless. She hits notes that make strangers turn to each other asking incredulously, “did you hear that?” just to make sure we weren’t dreaming.
Still, this is an ensemble piece, and she is just as comfortable tucked in the background supporting her fellow actors during their spotlight time, and man, do they shine. NaTasha Yvette Williams is a powerhouse in her own right having performed as Sofia in Oprah Winfrey’s The Color Purple, and she brings a hefty strength to her role with a voice that takes no prisoners. Marva Hicks last seen in Arena’s Women of Brewster Place brings down the house with the old-time favorite “His Eye Is on the Sparrow”, lifting it beyond its standard funeral drudgery with a refreshing perky lilt. Playing all the characters as the “Man,” Phillip Boykin has the daunting role of representing fathers, husbands, lovers, preachers, which he does with an easy-on-the-eye gorgeous bearing, and a voice that is heaven sent.
The strong ensemble more than compensates for the novice Zurin Villanueva who portrays Yolanda. Selected after a much ballyhooed star search, “American Idol” style, Villanueva does indeed have the voice for the songs, but the play’s heart is anchored in Yolanda’s journey, and previous productions were more effective in depicting the heart wrenching aspects of her loss, struggle and redemption. Still, this is a great start for Villanueva who hopefully will learn from the wealth of talent surrounding her, just as Yolanda learned to appreciate her cultural heritage and “hattifude” from her elder sister circle, and become the powerhouse that she is likely destined to be .
What e’Marcus Harper, musical director on keyboard, and Romero Wyatt on percussion do with their respective instruments is just as remarkable, perched on a backstage platform sounding like a jazz combo, an African village, and, of course, a Hallelujah Saints Come Marching In band. Harper has a special flair for recreating sounds and styles from by-gone eras and he finds the sweet spot for each number whether sounding like an old-fashioned spinet or down home church revival. Wyatt is equally effective in anticipating and reflecting the various time periods and moods using a range of instruments, returning periodically to the call and response of the drum’s heart beat. Instead of feeling limited, the scaled back instrumentation highlights the incredible voices, all determined to lift spirits to glory and leave no soul behind. Judging from the joyful noise after each performance, the artists can be assured of mission accomplished. “Obama- ashe, ashe” indeed (pronounced ah’shay from West African Yoruba tradition, equivalent to “amen”).
Set designer Neil Patel has a wonderful feel for the material in creating rolling individual frames which function as doorways, entrances and exits, and of course, mirrors for each performer to style and profile to her heart’s content. Finally, words cannot express the marvels of the costumes and of course hat styles, all designed by Austin K. Sanderson. They are a wonder to behold in bright and bold colors, sizes and shapes that defy gravity, with some even requiring wisps of architectural fortitude. Keeping those delightful structures up top of one’s head while trying to get your shout on might require divine intervention.
Crowns is fast becoming the rite of passage production for all of Washington, D.C, especially now that it is comfortably anchored on historic U Street, The heartwarming story is nestled in a structurally sound collection of women’s lives via their headwear, and Yolanda’s personal story arches from slouching grief-stricken teen heading towards being a statistic to joining a lineage of strong, proud women embracing her heritage and family, including their sundry collections of crowns.
The story is as solid as Rock of Ages, and the Helen Hayes winning show might be around just as long.
All photos by Scott Suchman
Adapted by Regina Taylor, from a book by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry
Directed by Kenneth Lee Roberson
Produced by Arena Stage
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
For Details, Directions and Tickets, click here.