Remember singer Aretha Franklin's flamboyant, big-bowed hat that she wore while performing "America the Beautiful" at the 2009 inauguration of President Obama? Hard to miss. A "statement" hat, a "we've arrived" hat. The Smithsonian Institution wanted that hat and may have it by now. That piece of millinery has "hattitude."
That's a trait very evident in Regina Taylor's celebratory gospel musical, "Crowns," now at the Paul Robeson Theatre. It's a Sunday-go-to-meetin' story of black women in the American South and the hats they wear, specifically to church where, as Wanda, one of six ladies chronicled in Taylor's tribute says: "I'm goin' to see my king and I've got to look good." Amen to that many times over.
Playwright Taylor - she's also an actress and a director of considerable fame - based "Crowns" on a coffee-table book by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry, "Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats." Wanda and her friends - Mabel, Velma, Mother Shaw - tell the stories behind the hats they wore back in ugly Jim Crow days or even now, beyond geography, when the bonnets still have the power to speak.
The ladies have a hat for every occasion and emotion. The hats - many passed down through generations, as we learn, "like family crystal" - can show joy, displeasure, elegance, adventure, sass and certainly pride and no small amount of strut as Mother Shaw describes her fabled walk downtown to a store not far removed from its "Whites Only" years. "Crowns" is about much more than hats and matching accessories.
The "plot," such as it is, is pretty thin: Surly Yolanda, a young visitor from New York, rap-raised, fleeing from drugs and violence, has to be schooled by her elders, learn her roots and gradually admits that the hats, the stories, the church services, fiery preachers and faith-filled songs) have brought an appreciation of "mother, motherland and me." In the end, Yolanda's backward baseball cap is history.
More than a dozen gospel songs, traditional rousers, are sung: "Wade in the Water," "We're Marching to Zion," "That's All Right," "I'm on the Battlefield for My Lord" and more, plus a stunning, inspirational and memorable interpretation of "His Eye is on the Sparrow" by Denise Smith. "Powerful" doesn't do it justice. Ethel Waters and Whitney Houston would be proud.
The cast includes veteran Mary Craig as Mother Shaw, her leadership invaluable; regal Vallana Harris; doyenne Beverly Crowell; the potent Annette Christian; Falisha Young as Yolanda (a role once played on Broadway by Buffalo's Carmen Ruby Floyd) and the lone male, versatile Terry Wideman.
Thomas W. Jones II returns to the Robeson to direct; repetitious remembrances lose impact and momentum on occasion, but that's not his fault. Harlan Penn's cathedral set is woody and warm. Frazier Smith does yeoman work as accompanist.
"Crowns: The Gospel Musical"
Three and 1/2 stars (Out of four)
Through Oct. 7 in the Paul Robeson Theatre, 350 Masten Ave. Tickets are $20-$27.50. For info, call 884-2013 or visit www.africancultural.org.