Hats With Stories

Though it doesn't have much of a plot, ATC's 'Crowns' is rousing, with engaging performances

First it was shoes; now it's hats.

Last fall, Arizona Theatre Company presented Bad Dates, in which our heroine tries on a closetful of shoes. This month, it's Crowns, in which six women (and a man) bring us a milliner's dream, a musical play about the hats that African-American women wear to church.

No doubt purses will be next. Crowns is the latest offering in what seems more and more like a season of accessories, a lot of attractive but light plays with no real couture at the center. Crowns is a rousing show, at least, with strong performances that distract you from the script's stray weaknesses.

It started out as a book of photographs and oral histories called Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats. Actor and writer Regina Taylor was engaged to turn it into a stage work, and the result is equivalent to one of the more flamboyant hats we see the women wear: a wide cartwheel brim of a concept supporting a little crown dotted with 90 minutes of anecdotes--way too many silk flowers and feathers, all of them striking without quite holding together.

The hats are a metaphor for faith, and display the pride and strength of women who otherwise didn't always have a lot to show for their lives. The hats are simultaneously a sign of status and a gesture of respect, helping you look good on Sunday when you go to visit with Jesus. We see women praying through their hats, flirting through their hats, competing through their hats, maintaining a subconscious connection to their African heritage through their hats--as one character reminds us, adorning oneself for worship is an African tradition.

What we don't see is much of a plot, which is what happens when you string together a play from dozens of oral histories. Taylor invents a Brooklyn teenager named Yolanda (played with exuberant exasperation by the post-teen Crystal Fox) who is sent to live with relatives in South Carolina when gang violence claims her brother's life. Yolanda's hairdo is so expensive, she wouldn't think of putting anything on her head except maybe her beloved brother's red duckbill cap, swung sideways. She's completely out of place in the South, surrounded by church ladies fixated on their collections of literally hundreds of hats. Ultimately, of course, Yolanda is baptized and starts collecting her own hats.

That's the very beginning and end of the show; in between, we pretty much lose sight of Yolanda's development while the other women on stage tell stories about their lives in hats. Taylor tries to create distinct characters within the ensemble, but before long, the anecdotes start to run together.

The show isn't all talk. There's a fair amount of stylized movement, close to but not quite dance, well choreographed by Mercedes Ellington, as well as a score put together by James M. Calhoun that leans heavily to gospel but also involves a bit of blues, spirituals and even--in Yolanda's case--a moment of rap. I dislike plotless revues, but in Crowns, I couldn't help wishing for a little less talk and a little more movement and music.

Performances are fine, and there are some rich voices among the ensemble, which includes Fox, Pat Bowie, April Nixon, Angela Karol Grovey, Erika LaVonn, Julia Lema and Thomas Jefferson Byrd. Keyboard player Mahmoud Khan and especially percussionist S-Ankh Raa make good contributions, too. But the greatest display of character comes from the remarkable range of hats assembled by costumer Reggie Ray. Some are elegant; some are plain; some are extravagantly tasteless, but they are all somehow beautiful (except for the silly fox hat, which looks like a garrison cap with goofy eyeballs glued to the front).

A musical show full of hats must be a sound designer's nightmare; the hats would cover mics that are normally hidden in the hair, and costume changes that strip the actresses down to their slips make it tough to conceal body mics. Brian Jerome Peterson hasn't quite met the challenges: Some voices are occasionally a little muffled; a turn of the head can drop the volume; and the two-man band is strangely deficient in upper frequencies. Yet for the most part, the recorded sounds of waves and insects meld beautifully with the live music.

Overall, Crowns is an engaging, well-performed show that introduces us to people we don't often see on stage. Hats off.