"Does anyone still wear a hat?" bellows the embittered Joanne, as memorably originated by Elaine Stritch in the 1970 musical Company.
Why, yes. Yes, they do. And they're mighty proud of it, too.
Inspired by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry's 2000 book that explores the rich history black women have with wearing ornate church hats, playwright Regina Taylor has crafted a joyful, colorful celebration with Crowns, which is receiving its 10-year anniversary production at the Goodman, directed by Taylor.
Just like the Ephron's Love, Loss, and What I Wore, the relationship many women have with clothing and accessories is closely tied to memories and emotions. And, let's not lie, there's a bit of superficial joy to wearing a flattering item -- be it a dress, a pair of heels or a hat. Pride in appearance isn't necessarily a sin.
To introduce us to this world of hat fetishists, we have Yolanda (Marketta P. Wilder, a fierce young actress making a bold Chicago theatre debut). Yolanda is a defensive teenager grappling with the sudden loss of her older brother, a victim of a petty street shooting. In a defensive move, Yolanda's mother ships her from the rough streets of Chicago's Englewood neighborhood to the sunny hills of South Carolina to be with her grandmother, Mother Shaw (the earthy Felicia Fields), and her extended family. There, rap and hip-hop is traded in for gospel and chant circles, much to Yolanda's disorientation.
There, Yolanda gets a crash course in "hattitude," including the traditions, customs and standards that must be carefully considered when choosing that special hat for church-going occasions. Each woman gets her chance to tell her story through song, particularly Pauletta Washington as Wanda and the ever-reliable E. Faye Butler as Mabel, who delivers the goods during a rousing gospel number. Newcomers Jasondra Johnson and Alexis J. Rogers also make strong impressions.
As festive as the evening strives to be, Taylor's script is a bit all over the map, with perhaps too many stories and personalities competing for attention. Yolanda and her inner struggle to maintain her personal fire while making peace with her past fades into the background far too often, despite Wilder's innate star quality. But what a background it is -- Maruti Evans has designed an airy, hat-filled space that showcases Maya Ciarrocchi's provocative projections.
But when this cast gets on its feet and sings their praises, you can't help but feel the joy and, perhaps even, clap along.
"Crowns" plays through August 5 at the Goodman Theatre. More info here >