Creating Thunder From Small Forces

Skylight’s ‘Crowns’ blends powerfully-sung spirituals with a gender gap tale set in the South.

By - Mar 7th, 2016 02:21 pm
Malkia Stampley (Jeanette). Photo by Mark Frohna.

Malkia Stampley (Jeanette). Photo by Mark Frohna.

Through the undeniable power of gospel music, spirituals, joyous chorales and hip-hop cadences, Crowns explores how to bring together the generations — so that the angry, slouchy Brooklyn girl crowned with her own sense of hopelessness can identify with her elders from the South who parade their faith and personality through their beloved hats (the crowns of the title) on their way to Sunday church. We’re heading there, too.

On stage through March 26, the show is also an honest effort by the Skylight Theatre to broaden and deepen its audience, demonstrating how openly a company, long regarded as an operetta palace, now enthusiastically patronizes music and subtle social comment from almost all genres. The Cabot proscenium stage has seldom whooped and hollered like this for theatrical purpose.

After an opening scene of African-inspired chanting and flowing colored garments, almost an incarnation of their higher purpose, the five matrons of the ensemble smoothly shed those headdresses to don the more familiar costumes and mannerisms of Carolina church ladies.  Each delivers brief, funny or moving monologs about life and attitude  – some, of course, more gripping than others but all designed to use their own hats as symbols of independence, pride, rivalry, family history and faith. Unlike the defiant punk from Brooklyn, they have thrown their hats into the ring of life and the faith of their mothers and fathers.

In all sequences they are supported by the nimble Ron Lee, an enthusiastic baritone who will don many brims and personalities during the sketches – almost violently broad as the minister and then more a bossy husband or relaxed spiritual tap dancer in other excursions.

The songs chosen to buttress the script are both heartfelt and familiar, everything from gospel standards like “Marching to Zion” and “Wade in the Water” to “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” and several more show stoppers delivered in muscular solos or group vocals. This dominating element of the production (music supervised by Chaz’men Williams-Ali and sound design by Megan Henninger) creates thunder out of small forces, with only two credited musicians visible at the edge of the stage and only seven actors twirling and singing. Choreographer Krislyn World reinforces the rhythm with gliding movement.

Costume designer Barry W. Link elevates the chapeaus and wardrobe into character elements and director Sheri Williams Pannell is at her best creating tableaus and crisp movement that distracts us from the stagehands who quietly adjust sets and wardrobe. Pannell is hardly alone in regional theater circles to mine interesting twists to the original productions of Crowns that date back to 2002.

The voices and the music are the most fun, but this show is also a perceptive acting challenge created by an actress who has long been a favorite, Regina Taylor. As the slowly awakening black housekeeper during the civil rights era, she was a core attraction of a 1991-‘93 neglected television series, “I’ll Fly Away.”  As a playwright she has continued the journey to connect black history with modern social movements in a series of plays and readings.

Taylor’s fascination with a photo book called Crowns led her into this special blend of contemporary story and traditional music, but with great cleverness she does not start out beating us over the head with the purpose. In dialogue, she delays for many numbers explaining the tragic life of the Brooklyn girl who seems to have stumbled into the Southern church from another century – Yolanda, played with shrugs of disdain hiding a big singing voice by Ashley Levells. Slowly we learn why her family has sent her South and why she displays rank skepticism about the older women as they instruct her in responsible behavior in and out of church. Regularly the matrons are given opportunity by Taylor for sass and flash, while Yolanda ranges from irritated to amused.

This is more than a clash of fashion styles or age groups. Under the Amens there’s a large bond of pain and endurance, given healing power with almost a church revival meaning. Every member of the congregation could be the lead voice in a national Baptist choir. In the end, the cynicism of the young is melted away by the enthusiasm and variety of life displayed by the elders and the meanings they attach to their hats.

The main triumph at the Skylight, though, is not the conflict between young and old. It is the singing, gospel power and long held rising crescendos.  Cynthia Cobb and Raven Dockery should be singled out, but there’s also Malkia Stampley adding dancer fluidity and saucy delivery to the role of Jeanette. There are also “right on, girl” moments from Una Van Duvall and Tasha McCoy. All these characters are romanticized churchgoing types begging for deeper context in a cast leaning on its comfort zone — infectious vocal strength.

In key dialogue, Taylor has provided a nice tension between the traditionalist fashion of the church ladies and the sloppy attitudes of the city girl. This being musical theater, the author wants to end on a celebratory note of hope and unity – though in this production that conclusion is a long-playing symphony of hallelujahs that the church crowns have won, just in case anyone has missed the point.

But it was the battle toward understanding of North and South, young and old, that provides the story framework and theatrical tension. Part of me suspects Taylor meant to leave us more with a sense of lessons, not answers, in this conflict of generations.

Dominique Paul Noth served for decades as film and drama critic, later senior editor for features at the Milwaukee Journal. You can find his blog here and here.

Crowns Gallery

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