Hats off to a royal show

During the deep freeze of winter, we bustle around in coats, scarves, gloves and hats. But do any of us ever stop to think about what our hats are saying about us? For most, hats just say we’re cold, but for many women – particularly black women – hats mean so much more. Regina Taylor’s “Crowns,” now playing at Arena Stage, celebrates beautiful hats and the uniquely beautiful women who wear them.

Audience members who have never really pondered hats before may be skeptical as they settle into their seats at Arena’s Kreeger Theater, but the seven talented actors, with their rich, strong voices and convincing portrayals of women (and one man) deeply connected to tradition, will put you at ease immediately. One character explains, “Hats are like people. Sometimes they reveal and sometimes they conceal.” The play’s goal is reveal the history, purposes, significance and artistry of hats to Yolanda, a young black woman from Brooklyn who is sent to live with her grandmother in the South after her brother Teddy is shot. Yolanda and the audience, through spoken narratives set to percussion, and vibrant songs, learn that “hattitude is something you have to possess in order to wear a hat;” even the most beautiful hat will only look good on the right person. One more competitive woman wisely notes, “I’d lend ’em my children before I’d lend ’em my hats … I know my children know their way home!” Who knew hats could be so fundamental to one’s spirit?

“Crowns” is about appreciating black women’s commonalities and differences. Of the six women on stage, one owns only one hat – Yolanda clings to Teddy’s memory by wearing his red baseball cap – while others own several and two own more than 200. Just as the hats are unique, the women who wear them have different stories that lead them to wear those hats to weddings, funerals and, most important, church. Mother Shaw compassionately lends Yolanda hats, Jeanette is happy to show hers off, and Mabel insists that others do not touch her hats.

“Crowns” is indeed “a whole lotta hat,” but it will leave you wanting more. Engaging from the show’s start to its standing ovation finish, the versatile actors do not seem like actors at all. Audience members leave the theater feeling as though they have just passed a Sunday afternoon with old friends. Weaving their stories with the sounds of the talented percussionist, David Pleasant, that make the anecdotes come alive, each woman imparts the message of the show in her own unique way – that there is joy and sorrow under every hat, and life is richer because of a hearty balance of both.

See “Crowns” and “get your praise on” – praise hats, praise black culture, praise the music that keeps the audience clapping along and praise playwright and director Regina Taylor for a marvelous new show. n

“Crowns” is playing at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. S.W. (Waterfront Metro) through Feb. 15. Tickets are $42-$60 or $10 when bought day of performance. Showtimes: Tuesday, Wednesday, Sunday 7:30 p.m.; Thursday, Friday, Saturday 8 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday 2 p.m. See http://www.arenastage.org for details.

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