“Hats are like people: Sometimes they REVEAL and sometimes they CONCEAL.” Roman Tataowicz’s set for Crowns bears the quote in raised relief like a memorial on a false procenium of smooth cream plaster. Beneath it, the raked stage floor and upstage wall evoke aged, cream-washed barnwood. The combination of weathered wood and pristine plaster create the ideal setting for Capital Repertory Theatre’s production of this 2002 hit.
A play with lots of music and heart, Crowns is a melding of old and new, the contemporary and the historical, the seemingly bland and the surprisingly colorful. The fascinating history of African-American women is told in vignettes, anecdotes, songs, dances, soliloquies, monologues and poems, which the excellent seven-actor cast craft from their souls and swet under the direction of Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill. The result is a joy to see, thrilling to hear, and as unique and enticing an entertainment as you will ever find in the Capital Region.
The play begins in darkness with a scream. Onto the upstage wall, framed by the barnwood, black-and-white drawings of a Brooklyn fire escape are projected, and Deborah Constantine’s pristine lighting comes up to reveal Yolanda (Joyel Kaleei, totally believable with her mass of pouts, contradictions, and doubts) beatboxing and tap/slap dancing an angry rap, “Where I Belong,” over her brother Teddy’s murder. Eerily dressed in a contemporary beige costume and almost melting into the set, Yolanda appears close to a ghost.
When sent to live with Mother Shaw (a powerful Yvette Monique Clark), her grandmother in South Carolina, Yolanda’s titled ball cap is the thinnest of connections to the elaborate “hattitude” of the “hat queens” she meets. Each of the women in Mother Shaw’s circle has a voice to lift to God and series of hats to know your eyes out. Thom Heyer’s costume design is stunning throughout, but the hats are the highlight, some mere head scarves, some serious affairs that would put Dolly Levi to shame.
The through line of Crowns—Yolanda’s search for a place to belong after her brother’s death—becomes a frame on which to hang stirring spirituals and rousing dances. Choreographed by Alan Weeks, the numbers nearly achieve the miracle of getting the audience members up on their feet before the play’s end. Each of the women—Danielle Tomas as brassy Jeanette (“I’d lend my children before I’d lend my hats. I know my children know their way home, but my hats might not”), Jannie Jones as strong-willed Velma who coins “hattitude” to describe the power of their elaborate headwear, Julia Lema as Mabel, the hat hoarding minister’s wife with more than 200 hats, and Ama Osei as Wanda, who likes her hats like she likes her men: proper, in place, and under her control—has a moment and spiritual through which to shine. Collectively, they are summer’s evening of sparkle.
The women are joined by Nikkieli DeMone playing all the fathers, brothers, lovers and ministers the women recollect, and director Mancinelli-Cahill has again wrought a peerless ensemble that acts, sings, and dances in perfect harmony. Of the many highlights in Crowns—personal favorites were the Act 1 closer, “That’s All Right,” and “If I Could Touch the Hem of His Garment”—the “Baptism Medley” may make you want to leap out of your seat and join in the procession. A
s Yolanda finds where she belongs, and a crown of her own, the production’s design palette expands beyond ecru in the final scene’s explosion of red, orange, purple, pink and gold. Crowns creates a new community that will be humming, swaying, and looking for hats all of its own. This is a show that deserves its standing ovation simply from its rhythm alone.