It’s all about hattitude, and the current production of “Crowns” at Capital Repertory Theatre in Albany has got an overflowing abundance of it.
Costume designer Thom Heyer conjured up the hats – dozens of ’em – and it would be wrong to start anywhere else in discussing the play. Big hats, small hats, wide hats, tall hats. Heck, even baseball caps. They’re bedecked with feathers and fur, spangles and lace, and they are, of course, the stars of the show.
But the cast brings the attitude, and without that, well, all you’ve got is a cool fashion show. The six women – Jannie Jones, Julia Lema, Amma Osei, Danielle K. Thomas, matriarch Yvette Monique Clark and dazzling newcomer Joyel Kaleel – and the lone male actor Nikkieli DeMone deliver plenty of sass and spunk and roof-raising music to Cap Rep stage, transforming what is essentially a pretty thin story into a joyous evening of theater that celebrates family, faith and community.
The play – written by Regina Taylor and based on the book by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry – is essentially a series of short monologues about the history and importance of Sunday-go-to-meeting church hats in the African American tradition. Some are quite funny. Some are deeply moving. What makes them resonate with the audience is the parade of classic gospel songs that are woven throughout the night. From “That’s All Right” to “His Eye Is On the Sparrow” to “On the Battlefield,” the songs soar, and the singing is genuinely soul-stirring. Mark Bruckner’s church-going keyboards and the rollicking percussion of Romero Wyatt provide the only musical support for the singers, but that’s all that’s needed.
The thin thread of a storyline involves Yolanda, a young Brooklyn girl who is shipped off to live with her relatives in rural South Carolina after her brother is gunned down in the streets. Joyel Kaleel plays Yolanda with oodles of teenage sulkiness and a rebellious spirit, opening the show with a high-energy bout of fly street dancing and hip-hopping that sets the bar high. Fortunately, director Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill and the rest of her cast is up to the challenge.
The all-white set by Roman Tatarowicz is a dazzler, too – perfectly distressed, weather-worn boards are framed by a sleek, modern proscenium upon which is emblazoned the line, “Hats are like people: Sometimes they REVEAL and sometimes they CONCEAL…” The set design cleverly embraces history, while bringing it into contemporary times.
Tatarowicz’s set and Heyer’s hats and costumes are nothing but variations on white and off-white – eggshell, beige, cream, bone, ivory – and it’s a bold decision, but it pays off. The production never actually feels monochromatic, but when it bursts into a rainbow of bright hues for the finale, it’s a cavalcade of color that’s as cathartic as it is whole-heartedly joyous.
Michael Eck’s review at The Times Union
Excerpt from Matthew G. Moross’ review at The Daily Gazette: “The evening is nothing but joyful, and the cast is especially spirited. Playing all the male roles, Nikkieli DeMone rips the roof off with an effervescent rendering of ‘If I Could Touch the Hem of His Garment.’ Jannie Jones starts mellow and mournful with ‘His Eye Is on the Sparrow’ but the passion soon becomes uncontainable and erupts into a blistering finale that has everyone feeling the fervor. Kaleel simply glows with ‘I’ve Got Joy Like a Fountain’ and Clark makes the room vibrate with ‘That’s All Right.’ Meanwhile, Julia Lena as the pastor’s wife stylishly delivers all the wisdom of the church matriarch, while the sassy and soulful Danielle Thomas and Amma Osei represent the gossipy next generation with all the right flourish.”