There’s a whole lotta shoutin’ and singi’ going on at Long Wharf Theatre right now, along with a lot of cymbals clanging and drums pounding, so much so that you may, at moments, feel a bit assaulted, at least your ears might. What’s currently on the boards right now is “Crowns,” a co-production with McCarter Theatre Center under the direction of Regina Taylor, who adapted the storyline from a book by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry. Billed as a “musical celebration,” it’s more specifically a celebration of African-American culture with an emphasis on the distaff side, for the “crowns” of the title refers to the hats that many black women wear, especially when they attend church services. This blend of rap, hip-hop, jazz and gospel is, if nothing else, exuberant, thought it may not be to everyone’s taste.
The storyline is somewhat slight: after her brother is shot, a young black girl, Yolanda (Gabrielle Beckford), who lives in Chicago, is sent down South to live with her grandmother, Mother Shaw (Shari Addison). There she comes in contact with a covey of women who will, over the course of the one-act musical, seek to soothe Yolanda’s wild, rebellious, grieving heart. The group includes Jeanette (Rebecca E. Covington), Velma (Latice Crawford), Wanda (Stephanie Pope) and Mabel (Danielle K. Thomas). There is also a Man (Lawrence Clayton), who will take on multiple roles as a preacher, a husband, a grandfather and Yolanda’s slain brother. Backing up this coterie are two of the hardest-working musicians I’ve seen on stage: Jaret Landon on keyboard and David Pleasant handling (one might say assaulting) percussion.
The evening is an exercise in soul-saving, with the women attempting to teach Yolanda the hard lessons they’ve learned, lessons that deal with love and loss and, in the face of travail and tragedy, getting up to face a new day. Their hats are not mere adornments, they are bold signifiers of a spirit that may often be challenged but is never crushed.
Perhaps it’s the theater’s acoustics, or the sound design by Robert Kaplowitz, but there are many moments when the music and the singing need to be brought down a notch or two. There’s also a problem with the delivery of many of the spoken lines – the words come out so fast that your mind simply can’t catch up with what’s being said. When things do slow down a bit and the musicians use some restraint, there are quite a few effective moments enhanced by Dianne McIntyre’s choreography, but then things speed up again and you often find yourself simply awash in sound.
The set for the thrust stage, created by Caite Hevner, is minimalistic, with a stairway thrown in for no obvious purpose and projections designed by Rasean Davonte Johnson, shown behind a series of scrims, that are mostly irrelevant (perhaps because they are difficult to see).
“Crowns” certainly seems to have its heart in the right place, and an enthusiastic opening-night audience responded with ovations at the end of several numbers, but it’s difficult to just settle in and enjoy the show given the decibel level that often prevails coupled with the machine-gun delivery of a lot of the dialogue. Perhaps if everyone involved just calmed down a bit, the show’s warmth and heart would become more manifest.
“Crowns” runs through May 13. For tickets or more information call 203-787-4282 or go to www.longwharf.org.