Hats Entertainment

Apart from the mourning, of which we get several touching glimpses toward the end, Crowns gives only the barest hint of all this. There is nothing of the spiritual commitment that makes the matriarch of A Raisin in the Sun force her rebellious daughter to repeat, "In my mother's house there is still God." Nor is there any hint of the baleful temporal effects such spiritual power can have, wrestled with so ferociously by James Baldwin in Go Tell It on the Mountain and The Amen Corner. Nor, coming a little further up to date, does Crownshave much sense of the healing power of ritual conveyed in the blood-freezing speech of the teenage girl who keeps the memorial scrapbook in Kia Corthron's Breath, Boom, with her tender recollections of her classmates' funerals. It would be unfair (and unreasonable) to demand that Taylor replicate these works by others; her topic is hats. The complaint is that her topic, in itself just a signpost pointing further, leads her only to the edge of innumerable other topics, any of which might have made Crowns a thrilling sustained work, instead of a bumpy evening with some thrilling moments.

In part, the work isn't sustained because Taylor seems to have looked to the wrong source for sustenance. Committed to espousing her African heritage, she looks to pre-slavery tribal customs as the source for the hats' startling flamboyance. There's undoubted visual truth to this; African women do adorn their heads for festive occasions. But so do most cultures, when going to worship or to a major social celebration, and flamboyant new hats have been a part of white Protestant women's churchgoing at least since the one on which Burns espied that mouse. The gorgeousness celebrated and sported on the heads of Crowns' cast probably owe more to Kate Greenaway than to Kunta Kinte. And the show's tenuous thread of a story line, about a teenage Brooklyn girl who discovers the glory of church hats when she's sent South to live with her grandmother, never evolves strongly, despite Carmen Ruby Floyd's touching performance, because the consolations of adornment and praise are kept discreetly apart from any substantive sense of Christianity or community.

Lillias White and Janet Hubert in Crowns: top notes on display
photo: Joan Marcus
Lillias White and Janet Hubert in Crowns: top notes on display

This, too, could have been a virtue instead of a defect. The truth of the spirit is greater than any body of religious doctrine, and black Americans, among the most beleaguered of all groups in their history, have been among the most generous in their willingness to share it. When it takes on physical embodiment, as in Alvin Ailey's extraordinary dance Revelations (which Ronald K. Brown's choreography for Crowns can't help but recall), something is set free that is not specifically African or American, but human and universal. And while it's emphatically unfair to demand that African American artists display a universal understanding, in a time when everyone and everything else in our culture has grown separatist, identity-ized, and selfish, the cue for a sermon is too natural, and the opportunity too good, to pass up: If we all thought a little more about the crowns we might earn spiritually, and a little less about the ones we wear in this world and where they came from, greater things might happen, in art as well as in life.

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