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Crowns
by Regina Taylor
Adadpted from the Book by Michael Cunningham and Craig Mayberry
Directed by Linda Kennedy
The Black Rep
September 15, 2018

Cast of Crowns
Photo by Dunsi Dai
The Black Rep

The first thing that catches my notice in the Black Rep’s production of Crowns by Regina Taylor is a giant hat on the stage. That’s fitting, because hats are front and center in this musical collection of stories, a celebration of hats in African American culture, and particularly among black women. It’s a fascinating subject, showcasing some exceptional talent and the superb voices of its cast while highlighting some compelling stories of several generations of women and men in the American South.

There is a connecting story here, but it’s more of a loose framework that provides a means of exploring the show’s theme. The framing device involves Yolanda, a Brooklyn teenager whose brother is killed in a shooting. Taking his red baseball cap with her to remember him, Yolanda is sent down South to live with her grandmother, Mother Shaw (Anita Jackson). Yolanda’s story is revisited several times throughout the show, serving as the introduction to various themes focusing on church services, including regular Sunday service, as well as weddings, funerals, and baptisms. The rest of the characters use these segments to tell their own stories, centering on hats and what they mean in various contexts, from African traditions to church culture, to family relationships, the Civil Rights Movement, and more. All of these stories are punctuated by songs, mostly gospel songs and hymns, showcasing the superb voices of the always excellent Jackson and the rest of the cast. It’s an occasion for thought, reflection, remembrance for those familiar with the cultural traditions portrayed here, and learning for those who aren’t.

The setting is established well, with that giant hat as the centerpiece of Dunsi Dai’s memorable scenic design, framed by stained glass windows. There’s also excellent use of lighting, designed by Joe Clapper, to set the mood throughout the production. The costume design is also particularly strong, with a variety of detailed outfits of various periods, and of course a succession of hats of many shapes and sizes, from simple to more ornate. The staging is dynamic and full of movement, as well, with Kirven Douthit-Bird’s choreography utilizing the stage setup well, as the ensemble sings and dances around the giant hat that serves as both a centerpiece and a pedestal.

The music is also a star here, with excellent songs and singing from the whole cast, and particularly Jackson, whose stage presence and vocal power are obvious, as also Amber Rose as Velma, whose solo on ‘HIs Eye is On the Sparrow” is a highlight of the production. White as Yolanda is also excellent, both vocally and in terms of acting, conveying her character’s journey well. The whole ensemble is strong, as well. In addition to Jackson, Rose, and White, Maureen L. (Hughes) Williams as Wanda, Eleanor Humphrey as Jeanette, and Myke Andrews in various male roles (including the pastor of the church) give excellent perfornances, relating their stories and singing their songs with energy and feeling.

This is a celebration of hats and culture, but also of music. It’s an outstanding showcase for great voices and fascinating stories, with humor, drama, and a strong sense of community, tradition, and shared experience. Crowns is a great start to a new season from the Black Rep.

Cast of Crowns
Photo: The Black Rep

The Black Rep is presenting Crowns at Washington University’s Edison Theatre until September 23, 2018

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Suspended
by Maya Arad Yasur
Directed by Linda Kennedy
Upstream Theater
October 7, 2016

Phillip C. Dixon, Reginald Pierre Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com Upstream Theater

Phillip C. Dixon, Reginald Pierre
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
Upstream Theater

Upstream Theater is a company characterized by well-cast, thoughtful small-scale productions with large scale talent. They are currently staging the world premiere production of playwright Maya Arad Yasur’s two-character play, Suspended.  Dealing with a timely, much talked-about topic, it’s anchored by two extremely strong lead performances and a well-realized setting.

The play tells the story of two window washers in an unnamed Western country. They are literally suspended from cables on the side of skyscraper, and as they work, they talk. Isaac (Reginald Pierre) is the boss, and he’s hired a new employee, Benjamin (Philip C. Dixon), without seeming to realize until they start working together that he and Benjamin grew up together in another unnamed country that was wracked by war. Benjamin is a recent refugee, but Isaac has been in his new country for a few years and has established a new life for himself. Over the course of the appromately 75 minute play, we gradually find out more about exactly how these two men know each other, and specifically why Benjamin took this job. The story is well-structured, as small-talk and banter are alternated with more serious discussion, seeds of ideas are brought up only to be revisited later, and the balance of power between these two characters regularly shifts.

I can’t say too much without revealing major plot points, but I will say that this is a deceptively heavy play, and extremely well crafted. What at first appears to be a lighthearted reunion of old friends turns out to be something strikingly different, and many issues are dealt with in terms of the issues of immigration and treatment of refugees, as well as the conditions in the characters’ home country and the conditions that would drive a person to join with oppressive regimes and commit unthinkable acts. It’s a difficult subject to think about. It’s one of those plays that will raise many serious questions among viewers. Ayad Yasur has handled the subject well, for the most part. There are some implausibilities in the script, but the characters are well-drawn and their situations are gut-wrenchingly believable.

The two actors’ performances are the emotional core of this production, with both presenting characters who are initially guarded in different ways. Dixon’s Benjamin is determined and earnest, initially eager to learn his new job although eventually it’s clear that there are more personal reasons for his taking this particular job. Pierre’s Isaac is more secretive, projecting authority but also surprise when he first recognizes Benjamin as his old friend “Benny”, and while he seems happy to catch up at first, he’s clearly hiding something that he doesn’t want to be revealed.  The interplay between these two characters who were once close becomes the major source of drama in this play, and both performers portray this complex relationship well, as new revelations emerge and are dealt with with convincing emotion, suspense, and drama.

The creative team here has worked well to set a convincing scene, with an authentic-looking section of skyscraper represented by scenic designer and artist Cristie Johnson, and appropriate work clothes provided by director and costume designer Linda Kennedy. Tony Anselmo’s lighting design and Dan Strickland’s sound design are particularly impressive, helping to set the mood and also maintain the idea of these two workers’ spending several hours at their job, with the lighting suggesting the progression of the day and the characters’ moving to different stories of the building as they wash their windows, and the sound providing the appropriate auditory representation of the busy city around and below them. Kudos also to props designer Claudia Horn and fight choreographer Erik Kuhn for their important contributions to the drama.

Suspended is an appropriate title for this production in more ways than one. The characters are literally hanging against the side of a building to wash its windows, but the title also speaks to the level of suspense that is developed as the story unfolds, and in some ways to the characters’ lives as they have had to transition to different conditions and circumstances in their lives. It’s an intense, character-driven drama highlighted by two excellent performances. It’s not a very long play, but a whole lot of story and emotion is packed into those 75 minutes. It’s a unique and fascinating production.

Phillip C. Dixon, Reginald Pierre Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com Upstream Theater

Phillip C. Dixon, Reginald Pierre
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
Upstream Theater

Upstream Theater is presenting Suspended at the Kranzberg Arts Center until October 16, 2016.

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