You're looking at the day-saving voices of of Crowns
You're looking at the day-saving voices of of Crowns Credit: Liz Lauren

I recently bought a remarkable three-CD set called “This May Be My Last Time Singing: Raw African-American Gospel on 45 RPM, 1957-1982.” It’s a compilation of 72 small-label or self-released recordings made by church congregations, evangelists, and beyond-obscure groups with names like the Skylifters and Little Midget & the Morning Stars.

Listening to what the liner notes call “heavy Pentecostal jams, slow-burning moaners, and righteously ragged a cappella hymns,” I was struck by two things: (a) the staggering variety of the music—encompassing blues, R&B, pop, psychedelia, and what’s probably best described as the aural equivalent of outsider art—and (b) the naked, gut-wrenching passion in the vocals. You don’t have to be Christian to be moved by the sound of gospel singers crying out in despair, joy, or supplication. The sense of need is urgent and palpable, the stakes are life or death.

Urgency and high stakes also happen to be components of compelling drama—which may help account for the success of Regina Taylor’s Crowns, a musical that derives most of its impact from a whole bunch of gospel classics like “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” and Sam Cooke’s “Touch the Hem of his Garment.” After premiering in 2002, the show went on to become one of the most produced musicals of the last decade.

In 2004, Taylor directed her own version for the Goodman Theatre, which has made her a member of its “artistic collective” and staged other scripts she’s written, including a couple Chekhov adaptations and last year’s The Trinity River Plays. To mark the tenth anniversary of Crowns—by far her most successful theatrical property—Taylor has mounted a new production for the Goodman, this time adding more dance and spoken-word poetry and introducing a Chicago angle.

The show is loosely based on Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats, a coffee-table book published in 2000, featuring black-and-white photographs by Michael Cunningham and profiles of the subjects written by Craig Marberry. Taylor wove the text into monologues that she divvied up among five women who, at least on the page, aren’t easy to distinguish from one another. They acquaint us with the finer points of hat-queen etiquette (rule number one: never, but never touch a woman’s headwear) and describe their hats’ various functions as status symbol, self-expression, and link to both the recent past (mothers, grandmothers) and a more remote heritage (Africa).

Taylor incorporated several elements of the southern Pentecostal tradition, including a morning processional, call-and-response preaching, a river baptism, and a collective holy-ghost delirium that provokes ecstatic dancing and speaking in tongues. She also added Yolanda, a teenager from Englewood on the south side. That’s the new Chicago angle; in the original version of the musical, she came from Brooklyn. Following the shooting death of her older brother, Yolanda is sent to South Carolina to live with her pious grandmother. The girl prefers hip-hop to hymns, but of course the church ladies eventually teach her to respect her roots and help her work through her loss.

Yolanda is the show’s least successful character, mainly because most of her lines sound like last-place entries in a poetry-slam contest. At one point she describes the churchwomen as “mountains fused out of brick, covered in lava, cast in steel, and sealed with diamonds.” That’s an image only slightly easier to picture than the horse-sized locusts with human faces and lion’s teeth you find in the book of Revelation.

The combination of Yolanda’s versifying and the other characters’ interchangeability gives the script a strange quality of seeming simultaneously over- and underwritten. There are some simple, evocative details—little girls with lace hankies bobby-pinned to their heads, a funeral-home worker who reveals the secret to getting a hat brim to lie flat when its wearer is in a coffin—but, perhaps owing to the ceremonial structure of the show, performances remain one-dimensional. The younger cast members in particular show less depth than the millinery—which, by the way, is worthy of a royal wedding (Karen Perry designed the costumes).

What saves the day are the songs and the voices that sing them. The former touch on pretty much the entirety of the African-American musical legacy from field songs to rap, and they’re given soul-shaking interpretations by a cast that includes powerhouses Felicia Fields as the grandmother and E. Faye Butler as a sanctified screamer who could put the fear of God in the devil himself. Alternately ferocious and funny, knowing and vulnerable, Fields and Butler set the whole apparatus soaring on willpower alone.