‘Crowns’ shines light on church hats and outspoken women who wear them

Janet Hubert, left, lawrence clayton and Lynda Gravatt rehearse a scene from Crowns at the Second Stage Theatre in New York. The play, which chronicles the lives of women who wear church hats, opens Monday. It was written by Regina Taylor.

? These aren’t mere hats. They’re crowns.

Whether a simple black beret or an elaborate headdress dripping with baubles and netting, they are emblems of sisterhood, shared history and, most of all, faith.

They happen to make great fashion statements, too.

Church hats and the outspoken women who wear them are the subject of “Crowns,” a new play with music at off-Broadway’s Second Stage Theatre.

The play, based on a book with the same title, traces the centuries-old tradition of American black women wearing hats :quot; sometimes spectacular, sometimes modest :quot; to Sunday services.

“It’s something that has been passed down over generations, and you can track it back over the sea to the African tradition of adorning oneself for worship,” says director and writer Regina Taylor.

The women in “Crowns” are played by an ensemble cast of six actresses, including Lillias White (Tony winner for “The Life” in 1997) and Janet Hubert (“The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”). Their interwoven anecdotes about buying and wearing hats touch on weightier topics: racism, the place of religion in contemporary black life, crime in urban black communities.

One woman relates a tale about buying a hat from a white-owned department store in the early 1960s, shortly after it opened its doors to blacks.

“When I went up to the counter with a hat,” she says, “the lady said, ‘May I help you?’ But she was looking down her nose. … That made me even more determined. If it took all the money I had at that time, I was going to purchase that hat.”

Another, in a more lighthearted vein, sassily outlines the rules of hat etiquette: “Listen, never touch my hat. If you don’t know, I’m gonna tell you. Admire it from a distance, honey.”

The show is based on a book by photographer Michael Cunningham and writer Craig Marberry, and contains the oral histories of 50 different women.

The women range in age from early 20s to late 70s. Some own as few as three hats; others own dozens or even hundreds (North Carolina State Rep. Alma Adams owns the most :quot; more than 350). They are all from North Carolina, where Cunningham and Marberry both live.

Before the book had even been published, Marberry says he envisioned it transferring well to the stage. He made a pitch to theater director Emily Mann because he had been impressed with her work on “Having Our Say,” a play based on the autobiographies of two elderly sisters who had lived through most of the 20th century.

Mann, who runs the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, N.J., was interested, but her schedule was so full that she referred the project to Taylor, who co-starred with Sam Waterston in TV’s acclaimed “I’ll Fly Away.”

Taylor didn’t have to think twice. “I recognized all of these women immediately,” she says. “I think in all of them I connected to an aunt, cousin, grandmother or a woman who lived down the block.”

Besides acting, Taylor is a seasoned theater artist, having written several one-act plays and the one-woman show, “Escape From Paradise,” in 1994.

In adapting “Crowns” for the stage, Taylor distilled the 50 women profiled in the book into six. She wound up with one who is brash and flirtatious, one who is dignified and shy, one she calls the “church matriarch.”

“The stories I collected were like colors on a palette,” Marberry says. “Regina painted this masterpiece from the palette because she just found themes and connections and took their rich stories to an even deeper level.”

Hats are everywhere in the show: on the women’s heads, on mannequins lining the back of the stage, on elongated hat racks running from the ceiling to the stage floor. They were created by costume designer Emilio Sosa.

Some of the most outrageous, including a 3-foot high assemblage of red plumes and streamers, are worn by Lillias White.

“I don’t really get into the spiritual side of the hats much,” White says, smiling. “I like them more for the fashion element.”

While much of the dialogue in the play is pulled directly from Marberry’s interviews, the play is less linear than the book, often weaving together several stories at once. “I did a great deal of adapting in terms of how I structured and collaged the story,” Taylor says.

She also created, specifically for the show, a young Brooklyn woman named Yolanda (Carmen Ruby Floyd), who moves to North Carolina to live with her grandmother (Ebony Jo-Ann) after her brother is shot.

At first, Yolanda rolls her eyes at Grandma and her churchgoing, hat-wearing friends. By the end of the play, she’s less skeptical. “The experience ties her to her history,” Taylor says. “She’s changed by that.”

The character also serves as a point of entry for younger audience members, who are likely to be unfamiliar with hat-wearing and other church traditions.

Taylor has been pleasantly surprised by the wide range in ages among the play’s audiences.

“What’s so wonderful is that it’s a family show,” she says. “Different generations have been coming … and they dress to the nines :quot; matching handbags, shoes, hats. That’s really a beautiful experience.”