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Hats Incredible 

Well-lidded ladies are one toque over the line in Crowns.

The cast of Crowns keep a lid on it: Wanda - (Chaundra Cameron, left), Mother Shaw (Queen - Esther Marrow), and Velma (Angela Gillespie - Winborn).
  • The cast of Crowns keep a lid on it: Wanda (Chaundra Cameron, left), Mother Shaw (Queen Esther Marrow), and Velma (Angela Gillespie Winborn).
If you've ever wondered why we all know who the leader of the Catholic Church is but would be hard-pressed to identify the top dog of any other religious group, the answer is obvious: It's the hat. One look at the towering miter the Pope props on his dome, like a bejeweled rocket ship about to blast into orbit, and you know you're in the presence of someone who enjoys being noticed when entering a room. Among all articles of clothing, hats are uniquely able to draw attention and make the wearer feel special, so it's all the more dispiriting that the current trend in millinery is toward cotton baseball caps with corporate logos.

Ah, but that's not the case in the African-American community, where churchgoing women still bedeck their well-coifed heads in feathery and sequined flights of fancy -- a tradition that is given a loving and rousing tribute in Crowns, now at the Cleveland Play House. Playwright Regina Taylor has adapted this work from the book Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats, mixing stories, mini-profiles, and gospel music into an evening spilling over with exuberance. Even though the meandering script never lingers long enough on any one character to register a distinct personality, the gifted Play House cast of six women and one man infuses the 100-minute production with enough energy to power one of Elton John's old electrified chapeaus.

Crowns is loosely structured around Yolanda (feisty Edwina Findley), a young Brooklyn, New Yorker who's just lost her beloved brother in a shooting and has gone to live with her grandmother, Mother Shaw (a dignified Queen Esther Marrow), in South Carolina. Once there, she encounters the Ladies Who Wear Hats, the women attending the local church, for whom a stylish hat (with matching bag, gloves, and shoes, of course) is as important as food or shelter. Superficial as it may seem, this obsession with headgear acquires more profound meaning as the women recall their mothers making hats while "hearing the soft click of the sewing machine" or the romantic potential that hats provide ("You can flirt with a fan, but you can really flirt with a hat!"). There are also many comical moments, as the ladies reminisce about the cardboard fans that were passed out at church on hot days -- always a picture of Martin Luther King or JFK on one side, a funeral home ad on the other -- and the contortions that would ensue when women attempted to hug each other while keeping their brims from bumping.

But the most telling moments are the gospel songs, both solos and group numbers, that are presented with genuine passion. Compellingly delivered tunes such as "If I Could Touch the Hem of His Garment" and "His Eye Is on the Sparrow" are ample compensation for a number of dialogue bits that feel threadbare in content or are abruptly terminated. By trying to cover too much territory -- from college days to civil-rights demonstrations to dying-relative scenarios -- playwright Taylor sacrifices the depth that would have made any of those vignettes truly memorable.

The exceptionally capable cast is led by the performance of Tony Award-winning Trezana Beverley, who delivers a whirlwind interpretation of Mabel, a woman who dances and sings with high-spirited abandon and has the most aggressive "hatitude" of them all. As she says at one point, you've got to know how to carry off a hat, and "if half of you looks like a hat, that's a problem." Lavonda Elam is also excellent as the whisper-slim Jeanette, as are Chaundra Cameron and Angela Gillespie Winborn as Wanda and Velma. The only man on stage, Michael W. Howell, shows off a voice as deep and smooth as a snifter of well-aged Napoleon VSOP, but his acting skills are less than remarkable.

Most of the dialogue is woven seamlessly into a musical tapestry of gospel music and African percussion, handled with expertise by pianist-conductor Edward E. Ridley Jr. and the animated percussionist Bill Ransom. Director and choreographer Dianne McIntyre keeps the pace brisk and utilizes Felix E. Cochren's set -- featuring a swiveling curved walkway -- to maximum effect. And the crowning creations by costume designer Debra M. Bauer will surely make many in the audience pine for the days when bountiful bonnets were in style.

Although an entire play based on headwear seems a stretch at times, there is enough wry good humor that it doesn't become a headache. As one woman says about the possibility of sharing one of her treasured hats with a friend: "I'd lend my children before I'd lend my hats. My children know their way home." It's hard to resist logic like that.

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