In the more ambitious, new version, which opened Monday night at the Goodman with a cast of 12 and a seven-piece pit orchestra, the show begins on the South Side of Chicago, where the teenage Yolanda (Marketta P. Wilder) is suffering the recent death of her brother, a victim of gun violence. After rapping her allegiance to her neighborhood, Yolanda gets packed off for the summer (and then the next school year) by her worried mother to Darlington, S.C., where she is put in the care of her grandmother, known as Mother Shaw (Felicia P. Fields). This strong woman introduces her granddaughter to the church-going community of black women for whom hats are a statement of pride, dignity and defiance in the face of oppression. Maruti Evans' setting for the new production, directed by Taylor herself, features text chiseled into the stage's proscenium arch, in the fashion of aWashington, D.C.monument. "Our crowns have been bought and paid for," it reads. "All we have to do is wear them."
Well, amen to that. I've long had affection for this piece, which is based on the book of the same name by the photographer Michael Cunningham and the oral historian Craig Marberry. Not only is "Crowns" Taylor's best work, it's a populist, unabashedly spiritual show especially beloved by African-American women of a certain age, who have long honored its arrival in their city (the original "Crowns" enjoyed more than 40 separate regional productions) with attendance in the kind of hats that you don't want to get stuck sitting behind.
And in the midst of this most violent of Chicago summers, the impulse to move the frame to Chicago and expand the score with hip-hop and video shot on the Englewood streets was a good one. Hats, as this show now explores, have a more complicated identity when it comes to the urban world beyond the church doors.
We'd all like to believe that there are solutions to the event that starts the show. And even if the narrative is not exactly riven with nuance and complexity, the subtext of "Crowns" — that learning about honor and dignity and community is the best way to prevent young blood in the city streets — is moving indeed. At this juncture, any potential solution is worth 100 minutes of our theatrical contemplation.
One issue that long has bedeviled "Crowns" (and that prevented its move to Broadway, I think) is the problem of taking a book comprised of photographs and little personal stories (along the lines of "I wear this hat because ...") and shaping it into a cohesive musical with a narrative arc. Clearly, Taylor wanted to move more in that direction this time around, and progress has been made: We get to see Yolanda back in Chicago, sporting her hats with pride and making something of her life. And the visual aspects of the production are really lovely (Karen Perry's millenary work is rich and beautiful without ever pandering to the theatrical). But there still is a long way to go. Taylor's weakness tends to be mushy moments — stage time when the action seems to boil down to little more than awkward, simmering ambivalence. "Crowns" has quite a few of those dramatic tension-dissipating stretches still — when it looks like the cast is never quite sure what they are doing or why. In particular, the moments of Yolanda's revelation need to be sharpened and made more credibly progressive. Now that the piece has a more active theatrical structure, it will have to follow its own new guidelines, lest crowns fall through the gap.
And while the piece is rightly conceived as an ensemble work, some of the named characters (such as Mabel, played by no less than E. Faye Butler) are underwritten and underutilized. The other issue still in play is the lack of a full-throated gospel explosion — some kind of major-key musical catharsis, in a show that tends overly toward the vamp and the riff. Sometimes, you just gotta let it soar to the rafters. The real women the show celebrates have no problem there.
All that said, there is something about "Crowns" that warms the soul. Fields, known for her Tony-nominated work on "A Color Purple," is a force of nature; there is something crucially hard-fought and morally commanding about her performance. Conversely, Wilder captures the awkwardness of youth. And the likes of Jasondra Johnson, Pauletta Washington and Alexis J. Rogers, among a slew of other potent, deeply committed performers, affirm the show's strong sense of community.
The flip side of Taylor's ongoing struggles with dramatic clarity and integrity (when she directs her own work) is her notable ability to fuse and integrate movement, text and music in a relaxed and organic way. In particular, choreographer Dianne McIntyre's invigorating, Afrocentric movement work floats beautifully through a warm and yearning show that wants to engage in the horrors of life while embracing baptism and redemption.
When: Through Aug. 5
Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes
Tickets: $31-$88 at 312-443-3800 or goodmantheatre.org