Regina Taylor Celebrates Southern Black Women’s “Hatitude”
by Robert M. Gardner
Playwright Regina Taylor’s “Crowns” explodes with talent in this larger than life musical on Black life and culture. Director Delicia Turner Sonnenberg impresses us with flair and style. Scenic Designer Nina Ball’s abstract wooden arches form an inspired church setting. “Crowns” has a supporting team that matches the excellence of the delightful cast.
It’s always a pleasure to see multi-talented Darryl V. Jones, as actor, director, dancer, or singer. Jones richly deserves recognition as another Bay Area theater treasure. In “Crowns,” he performs wittily as church pastor, lending his rich baritone to the harmonies of the six woman choir.
The musical opens with young, rapping Yolanda (vibrant Antonia Reed) who must leave the mean streets of Brooklyn where her brother was killed. Yolanda visits her family in the South where she clashes with laid-back Southern Black traditions. Most of all, she is confronted by the ladies’ hats—their unique and beautiful “crowns.”
Her grandma Mother Shaw (dynamic, lyrical Juanita Harris) argues with the power of her voice and the sweetness of her song. Harris, a force of Nature, commands the stage. She takes Yolanda under her wing and provides a healing space for the troubled teen with the simplicity of rural life. Her church community—Janelle LaSalle, Constance Jewell Lopez, Erica Richardson, and Phaedra Tillery-Boughton—welcomes Yolanda with heartfelt warmth, wit, and wisdom.
Yolanda resists, but the enthusiasm of six Black ladies celebrating their lives and parading their hats becomes infectious. As they sing the old-time music: “Ain’t That Good News,” “Marching to Zion,” “Oh Lord, I’m Waitin’ on You,” “When I’ve Done the Best I Can I Want My Crown,” and other beautiful gospel songs, we slowly realize the spiritual refreshment offered by “Crowns.”
Of course, the stars of the show are the hats which the ladies wear proudly and assertively. They tell us that they wear the hats to church because they “are going to meet the King!” There are rules about the hats: “They cannot be wider than your shoulders” and “You don’t want to be seen wearing the same hat twice—and don’t even think about borrowing one!”
“Crowns” celebrates Black culture with spirituals that have us humming in unison. Music Director Leigh Scarritt’s band provides excellent backing for songs and innovative dances. Nina Ball’s soaring, unique wooden arches make spirituality the keynote.
The ensemble dances and sings, offering so many classics, like “Take My Life and Let It Be,” “Mary, Don’t You Weep,” “I’ve Got Joy Like a Fountain,” and “I Gotta Crown.”
As a admirer of Black culture, I am grateful for the grand profusion of art and music that has arisen from the gumbo of Southern diaspora, giving birth to Blues, Jazz, Rock, Hip-Hop. African American arts have enriched lives all around the world.
“Crowns” celebrates those arts through the strong church women who find a way to fight the oppression and express themselves magnificently—a musical journey with tremendous style. And those gorgeous HATS make a show in themselves!
“Crowns” by Regina Taylor, adapted from book by Michael Cunningham & Craig Marberry, directed by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, musical direction by Leigh Scaritt, choreographed by Kendra Kimbrough Barnes, set designed by Nina Ball,
lighting design by Ben Rawson, costume design by Ulises Acala, sound design by Lyle Barrere, at Center REP, Lesher Center, Walnut Creek, California. Info: lesherartscenter.org – to October 6, 2023.
Cast: Juanita Harris, Darryl V. Jones, Janelle LaSalle, Constance Jewel Lopez, Antonia Reed, Erica Richardson, and Phaedra Tillery-Boughton.
Band: Andrew Barnes Jamieson & Ken Bergmann
Banner photo: Antonia Reed (center) is welcomed into a vibrant community by Constance Jewell Lopez, Darryl V. Jones, Juanita Harris, & Phaedra Tillery-Boughton. Photos: Kevin Berne