Review: ‘Crowns: A Gospel Musical’ at Arena Players

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Apropos to Mother’s Day, and a magnificent button to the end of its 63rd season, Arena Players’ Crowns: A Gospel Musical is, among many things, a celebration of Christian and African religious traditions. Adapted by playwright Regina Taylor from the picture-book “Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats,” without a composer, and as directed by Kwamé Kenyatta-Bey, Crowns is a spirit-stirring, hand-clapping good time.

The show follows Yolanda (Monyai Stukes), a young and troubled Brooklyn girl whose brother gets gunned down and she is subsequently sent to live with her female relatives in the South. As Kenyatta-Bey wrote in his director’s notes: “One tradition of those who accomplished the northern migration trek was to return those who were in pain and loss back to their roots.”

Down South, Yolanda is subject to anecdote after anecdote about the African and Christian tradition of women “adorning” their heads in church, and especially the importance of their hats aka crowns. The characters she meets include Mother Shaw (the always outstanding, and WATCH award winner for Bye, Bye Birdie at Prince George’s Little Theatre, TiaJuana (Tia) Rountree); two Wanda’s (Charisse Caldwell-Bowen and Pamela Sparks); Velma (the velvet-voiced Khadijah Hameen); Mabel (Katrina Y. Jones); Jeanette (Stacey Saunders) and a Pastor (Steven Maurice).

The strength of this show was its familiar, foot-tapping Gospel songs, popular in Black churches throughout America. The ensemble did a masterful job handling old favorites such as “In the Morning When I Rise,” “When the Saints Come Marching In,” “Ain’t Going to Let Nobody Turn Me Around,” “This Joy That I Have (The World Didn’t Give It),” and “We’re Marching to Zion, City of God.

Rountree gorgeously handled her solos, which included “I’m on the Battlefield for My Lord” and “None but the Righteous (Shall See God)”. Hameen’s “I Sing Because I’m Happy” was powerful. Caldwell-Bowen’s “I’ve Got Joy Like a Fountain” solo showed off her soulful voice, and Maurice’s vocals stood out in “All God’s Chillun Got Wings.”

Much of the show came down to the etiquette of women’s church hats: how to wear them, who can borrow them, who can touch them. Caldwell-Bowen painted a very real portrait of Wanda in a monologue about her father’s love of hats. She was funny when laying down rules about her “crown”: “ No hat should be wider than your shoulders…I’ll lend my children before my hats—I know when they [my children] will return.”

Maurice excelled in his scenes as a Pastor, who complained that many of the ladies in his congregation “can’t pay tithes but you can wear a new hat every Sunday.” Stukes delivered a winning monologue as Yolanda, about losing her brother.

Music Director Grafton Gray and Percussionist Tajh Flowers made a magnificent musical background for the singers. Costume Consultant Victoria V. Jackson no doubt helped procure many of the glorious hats, but at least one of the hats was provided by Hats by Marjae. I wanted to rush out and buy Maurice’s red (with a black stripe) fedora. I liked the Pastor’s walking stick, designed by L&B Creations.

The set design, by Kenyatta-Bey, on a semi-circular three-quarter-like thrust stage was minimal but effective. Kenyatta-Bey’s direction ensured that the energy and ques were on point all night. However, as a directing choice, I would have liked to have seen actors facing the audience more when they sat or stood house left and right. As Mother’s Day approaches, Crowns is a take-your-mother and everyone you know show, a Gospel-filled great time for all.

Running Time: Two hours, with a 15-minute intermission.

Crowns plays through June 4, 2017, at Arena Players – 801 McCulloh Street, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets call (410) 726-6500, buy them at the door, or purchase them online.

Note: Arena Players, the oldest continuously operating African-American community theater in the country, is looking to replace its 300 seats. Find their GoFundMe page by clicking here.

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