‘Crowns” is back with six beautiful black women, one male, and a pair of on-stage musicians in this revised, revamped, and remounted version of the musical that premiered at McCarter in 2002. Originally a co-production with the Second Stage, Crowns made its move to New York following its McCarter engagement.
If “Crowns” was considered by some as not quite having the drive or the dramatic heft that might have made it a real winner, it was clearly a show that desperately wanted to be better than it was. Unfortunately, the story or stories it has to tell have not been re-addressed any better by adding a more pronounced hip-hop-integrated aspect to the gospel and blues music at the show’s core. Much of what weakens the impact of this musical pageant about the glory and glorification of hats as written by Regina Taylor is its re-staging by the author.
It is hard to fathom why the vast stage of the Matthews Theater was more preferable to Taylor than the more intimate Berlind Theater. The cast has been handsomely costumed and chapeau-d by the brilliant designer Emilio Sosa, but the show looks lost within an odd expressionistic setting by Caite Hevner that does not effectively complement the action. Some low-rising bleachers serve a purpose but an imposing stage-floor-to-rafters metal staircase erected on the diagonal is simply a distraction except for its use in the finale.
Because so much of it takes place during a church worship service, the audience needed a closer relationship with the performers. I believe that a ramp or an extended apron would bring the performers directly into the audience.
In “Crowns” Taylor uses dressing up for the glory of God at Sunday’s church service as the show’s catalyst. Stepping out fashionably on a Sunday has continued as a time-honored tradition within the African-American community. The black women of the community have made putting on a fancy hat, commonly referred to as a crown, an important and meaningful aspect of the ensemble. This, it is believed, not only gives the wearer the aura of an empowered soul, but serves to demonstrate her faith as well. One character’s declaration is significant: “I’d leave my children before I’d leave my hats. My children know the way home.”
It is this practice that provided photographer Michael Cunningham and co-writer Craig Marberry with the inspiration for their best-selling book “Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats.” In the book, 54 women ranging in age from 22 to 78 are stunningly photographed in black and white. It is their commentary — humorous and sad, thoughtful and insightful — that provides the text in what is basically a coffee table book.
The portraits and the accompanying text were then adapted by Taylor in the tradition of what is known as “theater of testimony” and as such a theater piece that fits nicely into the genre that McCarter artistic director Emily Mann has favored as a writer. You could say that Cunningham’s black-and-white portraits are now observed in living color and brought to life by the “hat-itude” of six women distilled and synthesized from the 54.
Shari Addison, Gabrielle Beckford, Rebecca E. Covington, Latice Crawford, Stephanie Pope, and Danielle K. Thomas bring the women to life. And with Lawrence Clayton as the preacher and others, they prepare for services and participate in a wedding, funeral, and baptism.
Livened up with some revivalist-styled dancing choreographed by Dianne McIntyre, the musical puts the spotlight on each woman as she reveals through memories how she got her self-esteem and her love of high fashion. Although the score contains traditional spirituals and gospel music, it also features original compositions by Jaret Landon, Diedre Murray, and Chesney Snow. No matter what is going on center stage, you will be drawn to stage left where both Landon, who is on the keyboard and trumpet, and the terrific “drumfolk riddim” specialist David Pleasant are putting on a show of their own.
With many black women coming from a background of domestic servitude, their testimonies are used as a way to celebrate independence and freedom. Dramatizing this mode of expression as a cultural statement and as a compelling piece of dramatic literature is not an easy task. “Crowns” offers some sweet, nostalgic oral histories and some nice digressions into song and dance but sadly little dramatic substance. Under Taylor’s restrained and dignified direction, “Crowns” is hard pressed to rise above the decorative.
Even though each woman gets a chance to relate what the hat represents to her, how many she owns, and how she wears them, the musical also wants to take an interest in a group of Southern women who are attempting to bring Yolanda, a young rebellious girl from Chicago (a terrific Gabrielle Beckford), into the fold and turn her into a God-fearing hatophile. Yolanda has been sent to North Carolina to stay with her grandmother after her brother had been shot and killed in the streets.
The cast of characters makes it clear that the adorned hat represents a reflection of God’s blessing as much as it speaks for each individual’s personal expression of solidarity with other women of faith — “Our crowns are bought and paid for. All we have to do is wear them.”
The designer Sosa has had a field day with silk, satin, cloth, straw, felt, and fur. His task to give dozens of hats a life of their own succeeds. But, like an unfinished hat, “Crowns,” the play, had all the trimmings on hand, but no form or structure on which to place it. You could say that “Crowns” remains as it was 16 years ago all — dressed up with nowhere to go.
Crowns, McCarter Theater Center, 91 University Place, Princeton. Through Easter Sunday, April 1. $25 to $96.50. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.