It’s not only Latice Crawford’s powerhouse vocals, athletic melisma, and seemingly bottomless reserves of soul that are bringing audiences to their feet at the Long Wharf Theatre. The force of her rendition of the gospel classic “His Eye is On the Sparrow” is sustained by its dramatic context.
Crawford is not just singing her heart out; she’s struggling to reach an angry and emotionally closed teenage girl, wounded by violence and betrayal, who can’t imagine that gospel music might have something to say to her. The girl’s reluctant opening to her heritage is the thin but effective plot of Crowns, the musical written and directed by Regina Taylor now being revived in a spirited and talent-riddled production co-presented with the McCarter Theatre.
Crowns runs at Long Wharf through May 13.
The plot is thin in that it barely holds together a string of performances — mostly gospel but also including hip hop, African tribal music, and even a dash of the Broadway-style show tune — that make Crowns feel more like a concert than a musical play. But it’s effective in that it grounds those performances in a necessary and surprisingly unsentimental message.
The premise is this: Yolanda (Gabrielle Beckford), a high schooler and aspiring rapper from Englewood, Chicago, is sent to South Carolina to live with her grandmother, Mother Shaw (Shari Addison), after Yolanda’s brother is killed in a drug-related conflict. The crowns of the title are the decorative hats worn by Shaw and her fellow church ladies — a chorus of four played by Rebecca E. Covington, Stephanie Pope, Danielle K. Thomas, and Crawford — whose colorful gospel culture feels worlds away from the streets of Englewood.
You will not be surprised to learn that Yolanda, after resisting every effort at warmth, charm, and musical solace from her grandmother and her friends, finally comes to appreciate gospel’s lessons of resilience. But what makes Crowns more than bromidic claptrap is the dignity with which Taylor has written Yolanda, and the depth of Beckford’s interpretation of the part. Although Crowns has been widely produced since it first premiered in 2002, Taylor has revisited the play and expanded Yolanda’s role for this production, and her efforts imbue the evening with a weight it might otherwise lack. Not just a brat or a facile stereotype of disaffected urban youth, Yolanda is a poet who has no illusions about the place of black women in America (“My school looks like a prison,” she tells us), and who channels her well-founded anger into her rap lyrics, which projection designer Rasean Davonte Johnson displays on an upstage screen. Beckford fearlessly justifies every brick in Yolanda’s emotional wall, showing us the contours of her pain and carefully modulating when to release her flood of emotions, whether in a dance sequence or a furious hip-hop tirade.
Crowns is a defense of gospel music — not for its superiority over other African-American musical forms, but for its continuity with them. Taylor and music director Jaret Landon, along with percussionist and arranger David Pleasant, allow African rhythms and melodies, including a riotous “ring shout,” to leap organically from gospel’s driving musicality. Mother Shaw even reveals her fluency with her granddaughter’s hip hop in one of the play’s more moving sequences. The motivating principle of the evening is sankofa, a West African concept that means using the past to face the future. The church ladies’ lesson for Yolanda is that all the resources of African-American musical and spiritual heritage are available to her as armor in an ongoing black struggle. They are not, as Yolanda first thought, instruments of denial or nostalgia.
And it’s hard to find better messengers for the vitality and necessity of gospel than this production’s cast, many of whom are professional singers as well as veteran actors. In particular, the effortless strength of Addison’s vocals recalls Shirley Caesar, while her physical reserve establishes Shaw as the loving rock her granddaughter needs. Crawford is mostly subdued until her explosive set piece, while Pope has charisma to spare. Covington and Thomas are the most facile of the group, as natural at playing Yolanda’s high school classmates as Shaw’s wisened neighbors, and both can raise the roof when called upon. Thomas has a rousing solo; Covington deserves one. Playing all the male roles, including the community’s preacher, Lawrence Clayton moves fluidly from evangelical firebrand to cool-cat husband, with a confidence he likely earned by originating the role in its 2002 premiere. Upstage, Landon on piano and Pleasant on percussion make a two-person band feel like an orchestra. The innovative Pleasant, who works up a sweat throughout the nearly two-hour runtime, is the production’s cheerleader as well as its pounding beat, the soul of an eminently soulful evening at the theater.
Crowns runs through May 13 at Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Drive. For tickets and more information, visit the theatre’s website.