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Goodman Theatre’s ‘Crowns’ speaks to inner-city youth

Actress PaulettWashingtleft  Playwright ReginTaylor Goodman Theatre Dearborn st. The two are collaborating Goodman's producti'Crowns.' | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

Actress Pauletta Washington, left, and Playwright Regina Taylor at the Goodman Theatre on Dearborn st. The two are collaborating on the Goodman's production "Crowns." | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: July 21, 2012 6:18AM

Seventeen-year-old Yolanda is from violence-plagued Englewood, street tough and hardened. Her brother was gunned down in the South Side neighborhood. And her mother, in an effort to save her, sent her to the South.

Amidst escalating violence now rocking Chicago’s inner city, the plot in the Goodman Theatre’s reprisal of the play “Crowns” seems more real than theater.

That’s because the award-winning church drama has been rewritten for Chicago.

“There’s authenticity,” says actress/playwright/director Regina Taylor, whose 10th anniversary production of her 2002 tribute to black heritage is set to run here June 30-Aug. 5. A tale of a Chicago youth’s self awareness journey, the original “Crowns” was one of the most produced musicals this past decade.

The reprisal features Pauletta Washington, wife of one of Hollywood’s hottest leading men, Denzel Washington, who recently resumed her acting career.

Its backdrop is inner city violence. Its theme, reclaiming misguided youth.

“It speaks to what’s happening right now in Chicago, in Englewood, and to the city’s issues with violence,” says Taylor, noting the summer violence that’s driven Chicago’s murder rate up 35 percent, Englewood particularly suffering.

“I think a lot of our young people involved in this violence are walking with blinders on, so they see only one path,” says Taylor, best known for such TV series as the 1990s “I’ll Fly Away,” and films such as “Courage Under Fire.”

“How do we make that shift for them?” the Goodman artistic associate who last year moved from Hollywood to Chicago asked. “That’s what ‘Crowns’ is about.”

“It was important to have Yolanda come from Englewood, and be embraced by these hat queens who baptize and root her in her history, sending her back to see Chicago with new eyes, able to move forward with her life very much grounded by her past, embracing her present, and now claiming her future.”

Washington, who plays one of the church women who take Yolanda under their wings, says the play offers up faith as an age old solution to the violence.

“It’s God-centered, and faith-based was the foundation for Denzel and I in raising our own children,” says the actress/singer/classical pianist, whose Hollywood marriage has seen rare longevity — 29 years. She gave up her own career to raise John David, 27; Katia, 24; and twins Olivia and Malcolm, 21.

“I introduced God, and I introduced faith to our children. And not only did I talk about it, I walked it,” says Washington. “It’s what my own parents gave me. You’ve got to give children something to hold on to bigger than you.”

Washington, whose Broadway credits include the 1977 “Jesus Christ Superstar”; her film credits, the 1998 “Beloved”; and her music credits, the soundtrack to her husband’s 1994 film, “Philadelphia,” settled in Chicago NATO weekend.

“I was like, ‘Really?’ But now I love Chicago,” she says.

“I’ve been raising kids the last 20-something years, and wanted to do something with a message. Anybody can understand this play. If you spend your life in one place, all you know is right there. Only when you leave can the right there that you know, shift. In a community like Englewood, financially challenged, culturally challenged, constantly exposed to negativity, our youth are in need of a different point of view.”

To that end, the play is reaching out to inner city youth, through workshops with area churches and students in the Chicago Public Schools. And it will kick off the Chicago Gospel Music Festival at Millennium Park, where attendees will get a sneak peak at 6 p.m. June 21.

“It’s not just about Yolanda. It’s about all of us, after all,” says Washington, whose husband and kids will be in the audience opening night.

“It takes a village. Our kids need to see someone from their communities who did something, even if they don’t live there. They need opportunities to be up close and personal, hear the real story from us, not from TMZ. That rings a bell with our youth. So it’s very important for those of us who have succeeded to come back, to at least let them see you, let them touch you.”

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