I settled into my balcony seat at McCarter Theater Saturday night on the promise of “a joyous musical celebration,” and “Crowns” delivered in unexpected ways. The musical, which features an entirely black cast, opens with the main character, Yolanda, rapping about her neighborhood of Englewood, Chicago — a home she had been ripped away from following the death of her brother, Teddy. Yolanda’s hip-hop expression starkly differentiates her from the gospel music of her old-fashioned, Southern, church-going, hat-bearing grandmother named Mother Shaw, with whom she reluctantly moves in. As the two painstakingly overcome the gulf between them, their modes of musical expression gradually converge in a way that can only be described as “joyous.” Bringing hip-hop into this reimagined version of an early-2000’s McCarter Theatre hit keeps the story rich, contemporary, and sharp.
The name “Crowns” refers to the numerous elaborate hats that adorn the heads of the “hat queens” gracing the McCarter stage, and the women are as glorious as their attire: Yolanda’s grandmother and her exuberant group of friends of all ages and backgrounds. Their runway? Church on Sundays. The hats aren’t just a fashionable indulgence — they are steeped in traditions of empowerment, both personal and cultural. Wearing hats, accumulating hats, taking hats off — these gestures unite, divide, and propel lives, and even civil rights movements.
The cast is small and stays onstage for virtually the entire production, which features no intermission, in an impressive feat of energy. Only one pianist and one drummer are on the stage, and they carry the cast through the whole show. The show thus captures a sense of intimacy as well as expansiveness — the latter helped by the constant projections of different settings, themes, and memories on the back wall of the stage. The actors switch in and out of different characters seamlessly, although there are some instances of confusion or incongruence — for instance, one male actor plays a range of characters of very different ages, some more convincingly than others.
This extravagant ode to hats is liberally showered with moments of self-aware humor, such as one woman’s declaration that she’d sooner lend her children than her hats, or a frustrated husband’s reminder that Mother Shaw has so many hats, but “only one head!” Yet, it is also punctuated by moments of intense pain, loss, and isolation: I heard audible gasps from the audience when Yolanda, entrenched in her worst memories, delivers the line, “My love shot my love, and killed me.” An outline of a body on the ground serves as a constant reminder of Teddy’s death and the hole he left behind.
The women’s joy is all the greater for their suffering. I was moved to tears when a woman at church sings exultantly to Yolanda, “I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free,” as if she might pull the teenage girl’s pain right out of her body. Yolanda’s journey is one of recovering connection and finding spirituality.
“Crowns” is positively triumphant, both emotionally and artistically. As the second-to-last show of the season, it closes off a year of jubilant McCarter productions.
Photos from https://www.mccarter.org/crowns