PICK! ASR Theater ~~Hats Off for CenterREP’s “Crowns”

By Barry Willis

A hip-hop girl from Brooklyn goes on a journey of discovery in CenterREP’s Crowns, at the Dean Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek through October 6.

Yolanda (Antonia Reed), Mabel (Phaedra Tillery-Boughton), and Velma (Constance Jewell Lopez) listen as Jeanette (Janelle LaSalle) extolls the flirtatious power of hats in Center Repertory Company’s “Crowns.” Photo Credit: Kevin Berne

After the murder of her brother, Yolanda (Antonia Reed) is sent by her mother to live with her grandmother in a small South Carolina town. Juanita Harris stars as Mother Shaw, the town’s no-nonsense matriarch and queen bee of a bevy of church ladies, each of whom owns a collection of elaborate fancy hats mostly reserved for Sundays, when, as is repeated throughout the serio-comedic musical, they want to look their best when they “go to meet the king.”

..an exhilarating, uplifting celebration of life …

Jeanette’s dad (Darryl V. Jones) does a softshoe in a memory shared by the women (l to r: Phaedra Tillery-Boughton, Constance Jewell Lopez, Yaadi Erica Richardson, and Juanita Harris) in “Crowns,” performing Sep 9 – Oct 6, 2023 at Lesher Center for the Arts. Photo Credit: Kevin Berne

Veteran actor/director Darryl V. Jones is wonderful as the town’s pastor, and in multiple roles as various males—father, brother, bridegroom—in a show that’s an outrageously infectious celebration of the feminine side of African-American culture. He’s surrounded by members of his congregation, each with flamboyant headgear and tales to tell about every one of them. Yolanda wanders in bafflement among these congregants—Harris, Constance Jewell Lopez, Phaedra Tillery-Broughton, Yaadi Erica Richardson, and Janelle LaSalle—slowly making her own discoveries about ancient African traditions that persist in modern communities.

Sassy, self-assertive, and self-deprecating as only black women can be, these church ladies enlighten the audience with anecdotes that encompass everything from the basics of flirtation to coming of age in the Civil Rights era. Much of it is very funny, and some of it quite sad, such as a dance scene in which a wedding transitions into a funeral, then into a remembrance of the community’s departed males, symbolized by simple hats laid side-by-side on a set piece that’s both church pew and casket.

JT (Darryl V. Jones) and Mother Shaw (Juanita Harris) share a moment as Mabel (Phaedra Tillery-Boughton), Velma (Constance Jewell Lopez), and Jeanette (Janelle LaSalle) look on in Center Repertory Company’s “Crowns.” Photo Credit: Kevin Berne

Scenic designer Nina Ball’s austere gothic arches serve as the sole set throughout the show, an adaptation by Regina Taylor from the book by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry. Crowns is elegantly and powerfully directed by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg.

Yolanda, and the audience, get schooled about a phenomenon that they may not have understood, but the dramatic theme that ties the story together is little more than a framework on which to hang plenty of great old Gospel hymns, all delivered with overpowering conviction: “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” to name just a few. The intermission-free performance is a riveting old-time revival, propelled by pianist Andrew Barnes Jamieson and percussionist Ken Bergmann.

It’s bedrock stuff.

Yolanda (Antonia Reed – left) shares her story with the cast (right – Darryl V. Jones, background: Yaadi Erica Richardson, Phaedra Tillery-Boughton, Janelle LaSalle) in Center Repertory Company’s “Crowns,” performing September 9 – October 6, 2023 at Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek.
Photo Credit: Kevin Berne

“Take me to church,” sang pop star Hozier—a song that exemplifies the universal human need for spiritual redemption. That imperative is exactly what Crowns delivers—an exhilarating, uplifting celebration of life that will force even curmudgeonly nonbelievers to leap from their seats in praise.


ASR Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com


Written byRegina Taylor
Directed byDelicia Turner Sonnenberg
Producing CompanyCenter Repertory Company
Production DatesThru Oct 6th
Production AddressLesher Center for the Arts
1601 Civic Drive
Walnut Creek CA 94596
Telephone(925) 943-7469
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!