Crowns: Black Women and Their Hats
Actress and playwright Regina Taylor’s fine play, Crowns, celebrates the tradition that finds many African-American women wearing hats at church. The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) is largely based on interviews I did with cast members in a John Beasley Theater production of the Taylor play. The women comment on what’s behind the whole hat thing and it turns out these crowns represent and express all manner of things. I think you’ll find the story insightful and entertaining, and if you get a chance to see the play by all means do, because it says more than I could ever hope to say about the subject.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Regina Taylor’s musical drama Crowns celebrates the ties that bind African American women in the black church. Faith and fellowship rule, but the hats proudly worn by these grandmothers, mothers, daughters and sisters soulfully express their solidarity and individuality.
The female cast of Crowns, in performance February 23-March 18 at the John Beasley Theater, well relate to the hat queens they portray. Millicent Crawford, who plays Mother Shaw, said the parts “just fit.” After all, she and her fellow players come from a long line of church-going, “hat wearing divas,” said Brandi Smith (Yolanda). If there’s one thing “we all learned growing up,” said Janet Ashley (Velma), “it’s that you don’t go to church without something on your head.”
From wraps, rags, scarves and caps to turbans to berets to formal head attire, hats are legacies that unite women over generations of sacrifice, ceremony, joy and sorrow. “That’s just a traditional thing in our culture,” said Smith, who plays the central character Yolanda, “and it goes all the way back to Africa, when women would wrap their heads with the gelees. So, we are still covering our heads today.”
A woman’s head should be adorned, the Bible says, and in black culture that means some serious crowns come Sundays. Bare heads do not belong in the Lord’s House. It’s traditional, historical, scriptural, familial. In this largely hat-less era, not every black woman wears one to church anymore, but chances are her mother or grandmother does. When women of a certain age meet, as Mother Shaw, Velma, Mabel, Wanda and Jeanette do in the play, their hats represent a lifetime of experiences. When the wounded Yolanda arrives in their midst, their circle envelops her to share proverb-like stories and songs. In a rite of passage that resounds with spirit, the defiant girl becomes a woman and willingly joins in, learning to find the joy that lives beside her pain. Hats become a metaphor for the unbroken circle of life and the passing down of lessons.
The rich material busts out with the exuberance and ritual of a black Baptist church’s praise-and-worship, call-and-response service. It is funny, revelatory, sad and buoyant. Voices, spoken and sung, are raised on high to consider hats in all their gospel-inspired glory and the various ways women use them to shine.
“You must have the right attitude to put certain hats on. It’s hatitude,” Ashley said in the flamboyant style of Velma.
“There’s some hats you can wear and some hats you can’t. You have to have the right hat,” said Crawford, whose Mother Shaw is a willful preacher’s wife and the group’s wise matriarch. “You put on a wide-brimmed hat that’s got some feathers, you better be able to pull that off because you’re making a bold statement and people can see it. It takes confidence to wear certain hats. You’ve got to be able to work it.”
“You know from the second you put a hat on whether it’s you or not,” said Phyllis Mitchell Butler, who plays Mabel, the Hat Queen with a litany of hat etiquette rules. “You know either that’s your hat or it’s not.”
“I think one of the women in the play says, ‘You can tell a lot by the hat a woman wears. About who she is,” said Crawford, adding a woman can say things with a hat. “A hat can be very flirtatious or not.”
Ashley said Velma reminds us a hat can reveal or conceal.” “It’s like a mask,” Crawford said. A pastor’s wife off stage, Ashley dips the brim of her hat on Sundays, she said, so the congregation “can’t see anything on my face.” Conceal or not, a big hat is just right for some women. “You see, I wear big hats because little hats don’t look good on my head,” Ashley said. “I’d rather do a big hat” Crawford said, “because you walk in the room and it’s like, Wow! That hat is bad!”
Some women are so defined by their hats, that without one, Crawford said, it’s like “something’s missing — she needs a hat on.” “It wouldn’t be right,” said Ashley, adding the anticipation of what a hat queen will wear is a spectator sport for “hat watchers. There are certain women that you know when they come through that door they’re going to have on a hat and you want to see what hat is she wearing.”
Hats are style-status symbols. A poor woman may take a plain hat but adorn it splendidly or she may spend all she has for a lavish one. The play refers to Mabel’s mom fussing over a simple hat so that it “changed the whole look,” Ashley said. “We look at how the hat is made. We look at those details. The details are important.”
Crawford said some women, like Mother Shaw, will not buy a hat they love if “they don’t think it’s worth paying a lot of money for. But there are women that will pay an arm and a leg as long as they know no one else is going to wear that hat.”
“That’s right,” Ashley said. “Not just in the play either…My sister shops where she knows no other woman in Omaha will shop because she’s going to make sure she’s not going to see her hat on anybody else.” “We really do that — we don’t want to see our hats” on another woman, Crawford said. Call it being a hat cat.
As a fine hat costs dearly, it’s to be treasured. “You’re going to be taking care of those things you worked hard for,” Crawford said. That’s why an unspoken but well understood hat rule states — “nobody messes with my hat” — which Crawford said hat queens like her mother make emphatically clear. “You don’t go near her hat. Don’t knock the hat, don’t touch the hat. My mom, she will lay down the law.”
Showing off a hat is half the fun. Women really step it up for special occasions. Then, a “hi-ya” or “hit-ya” hat isn’t enough. Coordinating a whole outfit, plus accessories, is required. “You go to one of the church conventions or gospel workshops or whatever and these women are going to be decked out, as they said back in the day, from head to toe,” Crawford said. “Hat, purse, shoes, dress, jewelry. Everything matched. They’re going to be dressed to the nines.”
“It’s like the lamp with the shade,” Ashley said. “You have to have that right top and that bottom to go with it.”
The play suggests a hat queen’s collection of crowns can number in the hundreds. “No exaggeration,” Crawford said. The lone male voice in the play, provided by John Beasley, observes to his hat crazy wife, “You ain’t got but one head.” Ah, but a heavenly crown awaits to adorn that sweet head.