BWW Reviews: Regina Taylor's CROWNS Will Lift Your Spirits at Nashville's Christ Church Cathedral

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If you can find a more joy-filled, inspirational musical than ReGina Taylor's Crowns-a tribute to African-American women, their church-going traditions, their friends and families and their gorgeous chapeaux-I can't imagine what it could possibly be! Raising the roof of the historic Christ Church Cathedral in downtown Nashville to praise the Lord and recount the struggles and achievements of generations of proud African-American women resplendent in their fashion and finery, showing off their ingrained "hattitude" with dignity, pride and grace, Crowns works its way into your heart easily, ultimately taking its place in your soul with its universal tale of love, hope and devotion.

Now onstage at Christ Church in a production from SistaStyle Productions, by way of the cathedral's Sacred Space for the City arts series, Crowns features the completely engaging performances of seven actors under the direction of two tried and true directors-Ted Swindley and Mary McCallum.

Adapted from photographer Michael Cunningham and former TV reporter Craig Marberry's coffee-table book Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats, Taylor's genuinely heartfelt stage treatment focuses on six women who impart the wisdom of their years and their individual and shared experiences through a series of monologues and scenes depicting events in their lives and the importance of a woman's hat in African-American church culture.

Focusing on the character of Yolonda (played by Tamiko Robinson, arguably Nashville's finest stage actress of the moment), a young woman who's come to Darlington, South Carolina, from her Brooklyn home to live with her grandmother in the wake of her beloved brother's shocking, nonsensical death at the hands of one of his "friends," Taylor interweaves each woman's story-and the stories of all the other women who figure prominently in the play's action-as she explores the impact of their tales on a confused, scared and possibly non-believing Yolonda. Their stories are underscored by the performances of traditional hymns and rousing spirituals that give the onstage action deeper resonance and meaning, both for Yolonda and for people in the audience.

It's a richly invigorating story told onstage and directors Swindley and McCallum-given the superb support of music director Randy Craft and choreographer Rossi Turner-bring it to vivid, memorable life through their clever and inventive staging and, ultimately, it is their attention to detail and their superb casting choices that result in a theatrical experience that is unforgettable and thoroughly accessible, no matter your own religious beliefs.

Sure, much of the plot revolves around hats and the requisite hat etiquette ("Don't touch the hat" seems the most important thing to remember, but you'd also be advised to give the hat-and its wearer-all due respect) which ensures a grand time will be had by all, but the most prescient information relayed is this: "The more I study Africa, the more I see that African Americans do very African things without knowing it," Yolonda says near the end of the show. "Adorning the head is one of those things…whether it's the intricate braids or the distinct hairstyles or the beautiful hats we wear on Sundays. We just know inside that we're queens. And these are the crowns we wear."

The women, though rather sketchily drawn in the somewhat bare-bones script, are nonetheless so believable and  almost indefinably present in the play that you cannot help but be moved by their stories-whether it's the tale of a woman who sings exuberant and unrequested solos every Sunday morning, a young woman begging to be relieved of her tobacco cutting chores, or a fiercely proud African-American woman purchasing her first hat from a previously whites-only department store in her hometown-and to find sustenance and hope in their unbridled and unreservedly genuine love of God and His grace. Even the most immobile of non-believers will find themselves reacting in perhaps unexpected ways.

Credit for that, of course, is due Taylor's superb manipulation of words and music to elicit an emotional response, and for creating characters that are so wonderfully warm and disarming. And, luckily for the directors and audiences alike, the six actresses who bring those characters to life are, together, an exemplary ensemble, their shared bonhomie and trust ensuring the show's ultimate success. Clad in costume designer Roxie Rogers' exquisite costumes (brightly hued and beautifully tailored church suits and an extraordinary array of hats), the women provide a visual cavalcade of fashionable, colorful Sunday morning delights.

Robinson (who wears a stunning emerald green hat) leads the cast with her guileless portrayal of Yolonda, effortlessly traversing the character's circuitous route to belief and redemption. Nashville directors are no doubt cheering the newfound knowledge that Robinson (singing for the first time onstage) might now be convinced to do other musicals. Her unguarded performance is sublime, her stage presence staggering and her abilities amazing.

LaToya Gardner, another of Nashville's most accomplished actresses, adds yet another stage triumph to her already impressive resume while clad in salmon-colored silk. The depth of Gardner's performance allows her moments in the spotlight to shine brightly, her beautiful voice used to glorious effect.

Naeaidria Callihan, who sang the role of Sarah in Street Theatre Company's concert rendering of Ragtime last year, is given the opportunity to shine as Jeannette and she seizes the opportunity to create a noteworthy characterization that matches her singing perfectly. Her voice is as rich and full-bodied, filled with energy and emotion, as is her royal purple dress and hat.

Charletta (CJ) Jordan's Mabel is raucously infectious as she relates her stories and makes her physical presence known throughout her performance. At one moment fiery (she's beautifully clad in red) and innervating, she is sweetly contained at the next, telling the story of a devoted father who so deeply loved his daughters despite the fact that he wanted sons. That moment provided perhaps the most eloquent scene in the play.

As Velma, Dajuana Hammond is at her comic best in a series of scenes that give her free rein to entertain the audience, but it is probably her performance of "His Eye Is On the Sparrow" that will really cause your heart, your very soul, to soar. Expressively dressed in royal blue, she's charming and thoroughly appealing.

Dressed in a gorgeous gold suit, topped with a towering gold hat that Queen Elizabeth II would probably love to get her hands on, Theola Futch is the loving and lovable Mother Shaw (Yolonda's no-nonsense grandmother), whose maternal grace permeates the action and whose voice fills the historic church in abundant praise.

Nicholas Oldham completes the cast, taking on the roles of all the men in the lives of the women (from Yolonda's brother to Mabel's adoring daddy), credibly and impressively filling each assignment and lending superb support to the women who dominate the stage.

The first weekend of Crowns is sold out, but Nashville audiences will be given another chance to see the show again on February 9 and 10; curtain is at 7:30 p.m. For tickets, go to www.christcathedral.org.

 

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Jeffrey Ellis Jeffrey Ellis is a Nashville-based writer, editor and critic, who's been covering the performing arts in Tennessee for more than 25 years. He is the recipient of the Tennessee Theatre Association's Distinguished Service Award for his coverage of theatre in the Volunteer State and was the founding editor/publisher of Stages, the Tennessee Onstage Monthly. He is a past fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center and is the founder/executive producer of The First Night Honors, held during Labor Day Weekend, which honor oustanding theater artists in Tennessee in recognition of their lifetime achievements and includes The First Night Star Awards and the Most Promising Actors. Midwinter's First Night, held the first Sunday in January after New Year's Day, honors outstanding productions and performances throughout the state. Further, Ellis directed the Nashville premiere of La Cage Aux Folles, The Last Night of Ballyhoo and An American Daughter, as well as award-winning productions of Damn Yankees, Company, Gypsy and The Rocky Horror Show, with Ellis honored by The Tennessean as best director of a musical for both Company and Rocky Horror.


 
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