Crowns Unites Old & New School Audiences (Review)

For inner-city youth across America, the presence of urban violence is an inescapable reality. Some parents choose to embrace that reality and adapt; others find safer places to send their children to expose them to a better way of life. 

As Crowns opened for its tenth anniversary production at Goodman Theatre on Monday night, Yolanda (played by newcomer Marketta P. Wilder) introduces herself in a spoken word piece in which she expresses pride growing up in Chicago's Englewood community. Yet, the soulful soliloquy comes to a shocking halt when the teenage character gives news that her brother was shot and killed. After the tragedy occurs, Yolanda's mother sends her to Darlington, South Carolina to be with the family matriarch and other women in the church for a creative style of therapy.

When Yolanda arrives in the South, she is met by her grandmother: Mother Shaw (played masterfully by veteran Felicia P. Fields). The two represent different schools of thought: Yolanda, a new school, hip hop dancing, tomboyish rapper; Mother Shaw, a traditional church mother with an affinity for hats--known as "crowns" and for which the musical is named. 

But Grandma knows that she can't reach the troubled youth alone. She enlists the help of some very interesting church ladies to help bridge the generational gap. One of the ladies, Wanda (a role cleverly executed by Pauletta Washington) gives Yolanda pointers about how to wear her "crown" while the pastor's wife, Mabel (characterized by the talented E. Faye Butler) gives a historical lesson about how women in the church have changed over time. Yet, one of the most poignant performances comes from Velma (newcomer Jasondra Johnson) who finds a connection with Yolanda about dealing with death of someone close.

Alexis J. Rogers, who plays the petite powerhouse "Jeanette",  gives a show-stopping performance of a classic hymn which ends with such strong and joyous emotion that it is hard to figure out if it is scripted or a natural expression of "The Holy Ghost."

As the only man with a speaking part, David Jennings plays multiple male characters including the pastor, Yolanda's grandfather, and the fathers of other female characters mentioned earlier. While Jennings gives a strong effort in each role, it becomes confusing after a while and more suitable for an actor in a one-man show than an ensemble production. Nonetheless, he represents well for men on a female-dominated stage. 

The nearly 2 hour play was written and directed by Regina Taylor and adapted from the book by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry and inspired by some of Taylor's life experiences. Given Taylor's southern roots in Texas, it is evident that there is a dichotomy between values on certain sides of the Mason-Dixon line. As a writer, she creates memorable characters who are brought to life by her strong directing skills. In Crowns, Taylor finds a way to make every one seen on stage feel like a star--and even those without speaking parts give superlative performances.

Music director Fred Carl crafts a delightful blend of traditional gospel tunes with the contemporary stylings of hip-hop music to keep the elders and young people clapping in agreement. Meanwhile, the impressive ensemble featuring the local talent of Shari Addison (a runner-up from Season 1 of BET's Sunday Best), Melanie Brezill, Kelvin Roston, Jr.,  and Laura Walls sings heavenly notes while the agile and graceful Yusha-Marie Sorzano turns the stage into her "easel" of interpretative dance.  In fact, the whole cast moves with precision under the tutelage of choreographer Dianne McIntyre.  

Overall, Crowns is a celebration of life--in the midst of death and despair. It helps both the young and "young at heart" agree that pain is the same whether one expresses it through gospel hymns or spoken word but the healing power of music is sometimes the only thing that gives relief. 

Zack's TV Rating: Excellent

Crowns runs until August 12 at Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago, IL. For tickets, visit the website or call 1-312-443-3800.

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