Ladies’ hats were once a standard subject of Western comedy, from the poems of Robert Burns, who addressed an ode to a mouse seen cowering in one at church on Sunday, to an uncounted number of movie sight gags and vaudeville wheezes. (HUSBAND: I tell you, a hat that expensive is a sin! WIFE: What do you care? The sin is on my head.) Those days, like the hats they mocked, are largely gone; the last nail was probably banged into their coffin when Elaine Stritch, in Company, looked out at the audience and deadpanned, “Does anyone still wear a hat?” To gauge by Regina Taylor’s musical assemblage, Crowns, churchgoing African American women would have given Stritch an emphatically affirmative answer. They did, and still do, wear hats on Sunday. The hats fulfill a panoply of functions and carry a thousand significances. They are displays of grandeur and signs of deferential humility before God; they abet flirtation and they instill a dignified propriety; they stand as hallmarks of community feeling and as revelations of individual taste; they compete for pride of place and they mingle to celebrate the glory of living. Hats, one might say, speak louder than words.
They speak, at any rate, louder than those Taylor has been able to provide, which is a pity. The people and production elements she has surrounded herself with couldn’t be better. Her cast of seven, six women and one protean man, have the combined potential energy of a nuclear plant waiting for permission to activate; percussionist David Pleasants, visible in the downstage left corner, throws himself at his battery of objects with such enthusiasm that he might as well be an eighth cast member with a hat and monologue of his own. The bold Africanesque patterns of Emilio Sosa’s costumes balance cheekily against the old-WASP elegance of his hats, which occasionally suggest that the spirit of Lilly Daché is abroad in the land. On the smooth expanse of Riccardo Hernández’s set, Robert Perry’s subtly shaped, varicolored lights pick out the relevant hat or face with unerring tonal precision. For an evening that lasts only 90 minutes, Crowns‘ pleasures are many.
Only the central event is missing. We hear a little about people, and a lot about hats. We get to see the latter bought, made, given away, inherited, worn, removed, knocked off, and buried with their owners. We get to hear the music, mostly familiar but some not, to which they bob up and down in church. We get a little comedy, a little pathos, a touch of tragedy, and a fair amount of information. What we don’t get is any link to the life of the people who wear these hats, and for whom they have such deep meaning. Instead of experiencing that life, we get told, periodically, how one might think about it. The event only approaches drama for an instant, about midway through, when Lynda Gravatt, as a minister’s wife, starts to scorch the air with a diatribe about why hats are less important than praising the Lord. Here, you start to think, is something exciting—a dialectic of hats in a show about hats. But the moment fades as quickly as it came. As if to set the dramatic moment off from the rest, Taylor, who also directed, has framed it between two breath-stopping musical numbers: Before Gravatt’s speech, Lawrence Clayton, as a minister, delivers with haunting power a gospel song by Sam Cooke, about the woman who touched the hem of Jesus’ garment and was made whole; after it, Lillias White, as a woman who sings in church, though “no one asked her to sing,” renders “his eye is on the sparrow” with a blend of spontaneity, flamboyant calculation, and vocal dexterity that would turn a battalion of bel canto sopranos puce with envy.
Wonderful as these single events are—and I haven’t even mentioned gems like Ebony Jo-Ann’s joyous appearance as a grandmotherly fount of wisdom—they never build a cumulative force that would take us deeper into the world where these hats sway. Taylor keeps it all, so to speak, under her hat. She keeps pointing to the hat as significator, which would be fine for a sociological study (like the volume of photographs and testimonies that Crowns is based on), but in the theater, as in the African American church, people and not hats have to do the signifyin’. In one speech, a young girl imagines the hats responding and reacting in church, and no doubt Taylor’s task would be easier if they could do so without help from their wearers. But people, African American and otherwise, go to church for reasons far above their hats, and of these we only get the barest taste. We’re told (it’s no news) that the church was a place where African Americans could be free, equal, and well dressed without fear of persecution during the century after slavery; also that one dresses “to meet the King.” But this, and the accompanying songs of praise, are only the smallest part of the importance the church has had in African American life. It has been a way of building community; a social center; a source of order and stability; a moral counselor; a charitable organization; a help line for the desperate; a place to mourn and air one’s grief; a rock on which to found marriages, educations, and careers; a place for pooling knowledge (including gossip); and a center of power for black communities, a bulwark against the hostility outside.
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 Crowns have 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.
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.