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Lillias White in Crowns
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Hats are making a big comeback -- in the theater, at least. Two current Off-Broadway shows feature chapeaux in a very grand style. In Far Away, Caryl Churchill's play at New York Theatre Workshop, the crafting of hats makes an ironic statement about wild creativity used to political effect in a dying society. At the Second Stage, however, hats aren't used as a means to make a point; they are the point. Regina Taylor has written and directed a play called Crowns, based upon the best selling book of the same name by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry that charts the relationship between hats and the African-American women who wore them (and wear them still). Make no mistake, Taylor pulls off a Hat Trick: She scores thrice, turning Crowns into an artful amalgamation of oral history, fashion show, and musical theater.

The Cunningham-Marberry book is made up of oral histories of African-American women from across the United States. They talk in a variety of styles and tones but always about the same subject: their Sunday Church hats. These histories are accompanied in the hardcover book by pictures of the speakers, all of them wearing their flamboyant hats. Taylor has taken these histories and restructured them, creating a narrative that is as carefully blocked as any of the scores of hats that adorn the stage. (Riccardo Hernandez's heady set design features four hat-holding spires that rise from the stage to the rafters.)

Seven actors play an ever-changing series of real people whose stories are told in the book. These oral histories have been "opened up" (to use movie jargon) so that not only are the storytellers on stage, so are the characters described in their tales. Lawrence Clayton plays an impressive variety of men in this show, from a young girl's big brother who is killed in the 'hood to a farm laborer by day/preacher by night. A quicksilver actor, deft dancer, and expressive singer, he's the one essential, versatile performer with whom the rest of the cast constantly works.

Nonetheless, Crowns is very much a women's play, and the six females who inhabit this world -- and wear those hats -- create a powerful dynamic of sisterhood. They also create a beautiful sound, individually and when they sing in various combinations with each other. Carmen Ruby Floyd, Harriett D. Foy, Lynda Gravatt, Janet Hubert, Ebony Jo-Ann, and Lillias White are an ensemble to reckon with; White gets a star turn but all of the performers hold the stage equally well.

The cast of Crowns
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
The narrative is loosely structured as a freewheeling lesson about the importance (historical, social, and political) of "hatitude." The older women teach that lesson to a young, urban, African-American girl who is fundamentally unaware of her culture's Sunday church hat tradition. Ironically, the only scene in the show that doesn't work is the opening; here, the young girl sings a rap song that's nothing like the mostly traditional gospel music permeating the rest of the production. The problem with the rap is that the words, written by Taylor, are drowned out by the music.
The show is gently, almost unobtrusively, divided into seven different occasions when a God-fearing African-American woman might wear a hat. Among these are morning services, funerals, and baptisms. Dozens of stories unfold, including one about the experience of buying a hat in a formerly "white's only" store. The images are rich (Emilio Sosa dashingly designed the costumes, including the hats). The language of the play has an authenticity that is at once subtle and powerful. And music (arrangements by Linda Twine, percussion scoring and performance by David Pleasant) and dance (choreography by Ronald K. Brown) are woven into the show so well that they feel entirely natural and organic. Hats off to Regina Taylor for a considerable achievement.

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