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From left, Gabrielle Beckford, Shari A. Addison, Rebecca Covington, Stephanie Pope, Danielle K. Thomas, and Latice Tenae Crawford in Crowns, now playing at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theater. (Photo by T Charles Erickson )
Stephanie Pope (Photo by T Charles Erickson )
Rebecca Covington (Photo by T Charles Erickson )
Danielle K. Thomas (Photo by T Charles Erickson )
Rebecca Covington, Danielle K. Thomas, and Stephanie Pope (Photo by T Charles Erickson )
Rebecca Covington, Lawrence Clayton, Latice Tenae Crawford, Shari A. Addison, Danielle K. Thomas, and Stephanie Pope (Photo by T Charles Erickson )
Shari A. Addison, Rebecca Covington, Danielle K. Thomas, Gabrielle Beckford, Lawrence Clayton, Latice Tenae Crawford, and Stephanie Pope (Photo by T Charles Erickson )
Lawrence Clayton (Photo by T Charles Erickson )
Gabrielle Beckford (Photo by T Charles Erickson )
Rebecca Covington, Latice Tenae Crawford, Shari A. Addison, Lawrence Clayton, Danielle K. Thomas, Stephanie Pope, Gabrielle Beckford (lying down) (Photo by T Charles Erickson )
(Photo by T Charles Erickson )
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“Hats are a barometer of a person’s self, says Emilio Sosa, costume designer for Crowns: A Musical Celebration which is being presented at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theater through May 13.
For the show, which originated at Princeton, New Jersey’s McCarter Theatre Center, the hats worn by the African-American actors not only dazzle in their design but speak volumes about their characters.
“It’s all about strong, resilient women of color,” says Sosa of the play with music written and directed by Regina Taylor, adapted from the book by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry. (The show also had a production in the late ’90s at Hartford Stage.)
Each hat represents a different character, he says.
“For instance, ‘Mother Shaw’ is the matriarch of the story so her hats are regal, like crowns—no pun intended. Well, maybe pun intended,” he says. “Another character likes hats that ‘Come at ya,’ hats that ‘Getcha.’”
The millinery in the show runs the gamut of styles and materials, from straw hats to those with faux fur, toppers with satin ribbons, headwear with beaded sequins, rhinestones, metallic leather, feathers, plumes, and fluttering butterflies.
“There’s even a ‘trick hat’ that I can’t talk about because it would spoil the surprise,” he says.
Hats are regaining their popularity, though they were out of mainstream fashion for a while, Sosa says.
“But in the African-American community hats have never gone out of style for women or men. It comes down from our history of not having a lot, and in those days the only time you could get dressed up was for church.”
Sosa says hats are transformative, on stage and off.
“They give you a certain air and elegance,” he says. “When your grandmother or great-grandmother could buy a hat, it elevated them. A hat signifies stature, economic wellbeing, or it simply makes you stand out.”
They are also an active part of an ensemble, he says. How you wear a hat is also part of the fashion dynamic.
“There’s a character in the show that says you can flirt with a hat, but you can also ‘talk’ with a hat. You can even become mysterious or whatever in a hat,” he says. “There are so many adjectives you can become because there are so many ways you can wear a hat.”
Owning special hats also calls for special care.
“You wouldn’t have a lot of hats so you’d take extra special care of the ones you own, putting them in a box and wrapping them in tissue. To keep them fresh for a long time you’d change the ribbon or add flowers. If it’s a man’s felt hat you had to be sure to brush it to keep it special,” Sosa says. “People would often inherit their relative’s hats and treasure them because of their pristine condition but also because of the meaning that was attached to them.”
Sosa says he grew up in the Bronx among an earlier generation of well-dressed men who wore hats, but he didn’t make it part of his fashion look until he got older.
“Now I like wearing fedoras—maybe because my dad wore them. But I also like baseball caps, beanies, and knit hats. Not only are hats fashionable, but they’re practical: for shade in the summer and warmth in the winter.”
The response to his hat designs in the show have been personally gratifying to Sosa.
“The best compliment I can get from an audience member is for them to tell me, ‘My grandmother had a hat just like that,’ or, ‘Oh, I grew up having a hat like that.’ That means we connected with them—not just on a it’s-a-fun-show level but resonating on a personal, human and emotional level,” he says. “That’s what I like to do in my designs, bringing you into the story with things that you can relate to so that you can see yourself the story. That’s the beauty of theater.”
Does he have a favorite among the hats in the show?
“Oh my God, that’s like asking me to choose among my children. I love them all, but I do think the finale of the show which I did in collaboration with American Hat Company—which is a manufacturing company in the United States run by an African-American woman—is special for me. Not only does it end the show on a spectacular fashion level but it’s uplifting and it leaves you on a high,”
Should folks going to the show don their latest chapeau?
“Totally,” he says. “In fact, we encourage it people to wear their best crowns. You just have be careful who you’re sitting in front of.”
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