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Hats off for Crowns

27 Nov 2005
Get ready to clap your hands and tap your feet to some good old gospel music. No, it’s not Sunday service at your local church. It’s the opening of Crowns, onstage at the Bluma Appel Theatre, providing an insider’s look at African American church traditions.

Inspired by the book, Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats, by photographer Michael Cunningham and journalist Craig Marberry, the play captures the stories of several African American women expressing their faith and fashion statements through their Sunday hats. Adpated for stage by playwright Regina Taylor, Crowns premiered in New York in 2002 with great success. Fresh from its Canadian debut in Winnipeg, the cast, directed by Marion J. Caffey (Canstage’s Cookin’ at the Cookery), is stacked with home grown talent.

The play begins in Brooklyn, New York with a young, angry Yolanda played by Lisa Bell (Mirvish Productions’ Hairspray), who has just received news her beloved brother has been shot and killed. Grief stricken, Yolanda is sent to North Carolina to live with her deeply religious grandmother, Mother Shaw played by Jackie Richardson, (Canstage’s Ain’t Misbehavin’).


Yolanda’s spiritual journey begins when she meets Mother Shaw’s friends, proud hat wearing church folk with lots of “hattitude”. Told over the course of a Sunday, the play moves from the early morning rituals of dressing for service, to attending service, to a wedding, to a funeral and to a baptism.

Hats feature prominently in the play, almost becoming characters themselves. During segregation, church became the one place blacks could congregate freely. Since church culture dictated that a woman should cover her head while worshipping, hats became a necessity as well as a fashion statement. These weren’t just any old hats either…the taller, the wider, the foxier, the better. And don’t even think about borrowing someone else’s hat. As one character remarks, “I’ll lend my children before I’ll lend my hats!” The play is quite entertaining in that respect as each woman explains how to choose the appropriate hat, how to hug a hat wearer, and of course how to locate a lost hat that has flown off while the spirit was moving, and one was “getting one’s praise on”.

More than just a fashion statement, the hats marked important milestones in the lives of these women, who share their heartfelt stories with Yolanda. A memory of picketing in front of Woolworth’s to desegregate the “whites only” lunch counters, prompted one character to remark, “it took a civil rights movement for us to remove our hats”. Another memory of a “whites only store” which finally allowed blacks to enter, prompted Mother Shaw to remark proudly, “I strutted in, purchased my hat and strutted right back out.”

Of course a play about church traditions wouldn’t be complete without gospel music. Performed by a vocally stellar cast including Toya Alexis, former Canadian idol finalist, we are introduced to various forms of gospel styles such as the field holler, a call and response style originating from plantation workers, to emotional spirituals such as “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep”. The Ringshout, which features clapping and singing with chaotic abandon, evolves into rhythmic African dance movements during a church service. The lone male in the production, Sterling Jarvis, performs the bluesy “If I Could Touch the Hem of His Garment”. In a moving funeral scene, we are reminded by a soloist “His Eye is on the Sparrow”, while Yolanda’s final acceptance of the gospel message is expressed through a rendition of “this joy that I have, the world didn’t give it to me, and the world can’t take it away.”

Full of memorable women who are Queens under their hats, Crowns is an inspiring evening out. Reminding us of our proud church heritage and the importance of passing these stories on to future generations.

Crowns runs from Nov.14 to Dec.10, Bluma Appel Theatre at St.Lawrence Centre for the Arts (27 Front Street East). For tickets contact the Box Office at 416-368-3110. For more info visit www.canstage.com

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