Vintage Theatre production features a great cast … and a lot of hats

If you’d asked me last week to assign an interest rating for “fancy hats worn by black ladies in the 20th century,” I might have scored it pretty low. Maybe it’d be somewhere around my interest in mahjongg or jai-alai or Victorian lampshades.

But by the midpoint in Crowns, I was gaining a critical eye for all of the millinery items on display around the stage. I learned how your hat shouldn’t extend past your shoulders, and what type of hat you should wear if you have a round or narrow face. Hats could be made from the same material as the dress, and some ladies made their own while others bought them — seemingly in bulk.

And while white ladies certainly wore fancy hats to church and other occasions for years, I also learned that, for black people in the days of slavery, dressing up for church had a special significance. It was the only time blacks were allowed to congregate, so everyone took advantage of it. That style imperative carried forward to later years, and church-going hats in particular became signature items in a black woman’s wardrobe.

Part church service, part fashion show, part remembrance and part oral history, Crowns is a neat piece of theatre written by Regina Taylor. Made up of a few dozen short scenes, Crowns is a gospel-infused musical that goes deep on the seemingly esoteric subject of hats but is, ultimately, about a lot more: family, tradition, love, life and death.

There are a lot of moving parts, but director Betty Hart had it well in hand with each mini-scene flowing seamlessly into the next. Leading with the powerhouse voices of Mary Louise Lee and Rajdulari, Hart’s got a great cast to work with and she gets the most out of them.

Playing the young Brooklynite more inclined to a backwards ball cap than a fancy “crown,” Michaela Murray is charming as Yolanda. Sent to live with her aunt (Rajdulari) in South Carolina after the violent death of her brother, she’s the reason we all get to learn about crowns and Southern culture. Yolanda is the new generation with no affinity for or understanding of these crowns the older generation of women wore, but after full immersion by the other women she gets on board soon enough.

Crowns also features Jasmine Jackson, Adrienne Martin-Fullwood and Sonsharae Tull as other women in the town. Each of them has created a distinct character with her own lineup of stories and, of course, hats.

Playing the role of all the men in their lives is Michael Peters, a big baritone who slips easily into a reverend’s robes as well as that of father, husband, grandfather and more. He gets to die a number of times, rolling effortlessly from character to character. His signature line: “You only got one head!” — this in response to his wife who compulsively collects — and hides — hundreds of hats.

Driving the music on stage is pianist Trent Hines (also the show’s musical director) and drummer John Olsson. It’s a lean accompaniment that works just fine given the powerful voices from the actors combined with hand clapping, foot stomping and even audience participation.

Crowns is a celebration of African American culture, a throwback to a time when people didn’t shuffle around in their pajamas and women sized each other up by their clothes. Packed with full-throated gospel tunes and a few other musical styles set in a jukebox-musical format, Crowns is a fun show with a lot of heart.