The joy and crowning glory of ‘Crowns’ at Baltimore Center Stage

Over the years I have come to expect an extra layer of feelgood flavor from its Black-themed performances, and Baltimore Center Stage continues that tradition by delivering a joyful musical version of Regina Taylor’s Crowns that feels like an authentic Baptist church revival with over 20 gospel songs that will make you want to “Wade in the Water”!

In her opening remarks, BSC Artistic Director Stephanie Ybarra described the community partnership with ArtsCentric as “one of the most joyful collaborations I have been involved with,” and ArtsCentric Artistic Director Kevin McAllister, who directed Crowns, shot back and warned the audience to “not just sit back but to make lots of noise for the night’s beautiful fashion show.”

Scene from ‘Crowns.’ Photo by J Fannon Photography.

Crowns is a celebration of Black women’s faith and fashion on display on the most important day of the week, with the early Sunday morning family tradition of getting the Church Mother ready for service. Crowns is essentially a musical celebration of the historic role that hats have come to play in the exploration of Black history and identity.

But what makes BCS’s version of Crowns work like a charm is the authentic cast of vibrant church ladies who tell their individual tales of how they found their personal expression of joy in finding their perfect crown.

The full cast for the work includes Asia-Lige Arnold as the flashy young Wanda with a flair for bright colors and polka dot platforms, Jade Madden as Velma U/S who leans in with royal purple and contrasting white brims, her Velma counterpart Anitra McKinney.

Ashley Johnson-Moore plays feisty and possessive Jeanette whose philosophy is “I will lend you my children before I lend you my hat. My child knows their way home, but hats will get lost!”

Nikki Owens as Mabel has a variety of flamboyant crowns to match her vocal expressions as the best gospel soloist on stage, and Patricia Jones as the Church Lady and Katrina Jones as Mother Shaw complete the choir of soul-stirring sisters with plenty of “attitude”!

Scene from ‘Crowns.’ Photo by J Fannon Photography.

Anaya Greene plays Yolanda the young hip-hop rebel from Brooklyn who gets shipped out to the tobacco fields of North Carolina and the bosom of her Black extended family to heal from the tragic loss of her big brother, played by Quincy Vicks, to urban violence.

She is literally transformed from a defiant street-wise bully to a spirit-filled and baptized young church lady who learns to embrace the African traditions of hair adornments from her Southern family’s historical roots on her healing journey.

What she learns is that the tradition of crowns is biblical. First Timothy is broadly quoted — Women should adorn themselves in respectful apparel — although the “with modesty and self-control” reference is loosely interpreted by the women of this Pentecostal church set in Darlington, North Carolina.

A fashionable collection of hats is also a recognition of a women’s wealth and status in the community. The major male character in Crowns, Ryan Gholson plays the faithful preacher but frustrated husband of Mother Shaw, who becomes an obsessive hat collector and hides and hoards a collection of over 200 hats in every corner of their house after she gets promoted from a lowly clerk to a respectable school teacher.

Scene from ‘Crowns.’ Photo by J Fannon Photography.

The church ladies are pitch perfect in every vain gesture, from how to greet another woman with a wide-brimmed crown without ruffling her feathers, to complimenting each other with phrases like “You looking like a bag of money, honey!”

But what raises the rafters of Crowns with its beautifully crafted church pews and soaring stained-glass windows by Scenic Designer Shalyce Hembey is the show’s rousing gospel standards such as “When the Saints Go Marching In,’ with a special happy-dancing and soul-stirring version by Nikki Owens as Big Mabel.

Special kudos also go out to Musical Director Cedric Lyles on keyboard, Charles Brown on bass, and Murray Piper on drums, whose stage presence in their classic black bowler hats added an immediate texture to the authentic church setting.

The crowning glory of Baltimore’s unique setting was the sisters in every section of the theater who proudly sported their crowns as they clapped their hands and led the audience choir in singing every gospel song.

Running Time: One hour 45 minutes with no intermission.

Crowns plays through March 5, 2023, in an ArtsCentric production presented by Baltimore Center Stage at Baltimore Center Stage, 700 North Calvert Street, Baltimore, MD. Tickets range from $25 to $49 during the week and up to $59 for weekend performances. Book tickets online or call the box office at (410) 332-0033.

The cast, creative, and production credits are here.

COVID Safety: Baltimore Center Stage’s current policy is mask-optional performances on Thursdays, Saturday evenings, and Sunday matinees, and mask-required performances on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturday matinees. During mask-required performances, masks may be removed only in designated eating and drinking areas. For more information, see Baltimore Center Stage’s Audience COVID-19 Information and Resource Page.