Heads Up

Go for the gospel — but it helps if you're into hats.

It'll be several years before we know whether American Stage was right to take Shakespeare out of the Park and replace him with modern musicals. There are several barometers: The popular (are more people coming to Demens Landing?); the critical (are the new Park shows as satisfying as Shakespeare was?); and the Bard-ical (will the indoor Shakespeare plays be more impressive than their Park counterparts?). American Stage artistic director Todd Olson took a chance when he removed Good Will from his al fresco setting, and he deserves an appropriate waiting period before we claim to know whether he was justified.

But now American Stage is offering its first musical where the Bard used to be, and the tolerably good news is that it's intermittently enjoyable. Regina Taylor's Crowns is a gospel-song celebration of the church hats worn by African-American women, and where the singing is concerned, it's delightful and moving. The acting too is superb — the entire cast is top-rate, and the focal actress, Annie Lee Moffett, knows just how to seem a disaffected Brooklynite in Podunk. The problem with the show is its relentless series of tales about hats, hats and hats — so many that, though at first you find them original and illuminating, by the play's end you're plotting to go bareheaded evermore.

Author Taylor adapted her play from a volume of photographs and text by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry, and one can imagine picking up the book, looking at a few portraits and putting it down again. But there's no polite way to escape the surfeit of hat tales in Taylor's Crowns, and the so-called plot that the author invented never really gets off the ground. At least — no, at best — there's that wonderful singing, numbers like "We're Marching to Zion," "I'm on the Battlefield for My Lord" and "His Eye Is On The Sparrow." So how about an evening of gospel, and let's lose the hats entirely?

The play begins with a young woman, a Brooklyn native ("That's where I belong") named Yolanda. Within moments of her appearance, we hear that her brother's been murdered and that her mother has decided to send her to her grandmother down South. No sooner is Yolanda safe in Mother Shaw's Southern care than she starts to learn about hats: How they're a holdover from African tradition, that they're especially shown off in church, that they're a sign of status. We hear of fur hats, velvet hats, straw hats and a fox hat "with the fox's head still attached." We hear — and see — bandana scarves worn in the tobacco fields, and men who are attracted to women because of the latter's hats. "Hattitude" is defined as "something you have to possess in order to wear a hat well," and we pick up such rules as "If half of you looks like hat, I'd say that's a problem." As the stories of this hat or that continue without cease, Yolanda is mostly forgotten, outside of a brief scene wherein she's "dragged" to church and given a hat. There's a lot more hat lore in Act One — too much for this critic — and though Yolanda stands dutifully by as the stories cascade, she begins to seem superfluous. Does she belong in the play at all?

Fortunately, she has more weight in Act Two. For the first time she tells us the name of her South Carolina town — it's Darlington — and she speaks of being teased in her new high school because of her "unique hats and outfits." She models a baseball cap, absorbs some preaching about everlasting love, and listens to more stories on the subject that never dies. (My favorite line: "You don't need another hat; you don't have but one head.") She remembers her brother's funeral, learns how hats are connected to the Civil Rights Movement and is finally baptized. When last we hear from her, it's on the subject of her 60 hats.

The seven performers — Moffett, Rose Bilal, "ranney," LaDonna Burns, Yolonda Williams, Sharon E. Scott and Fredena J. Williams — all have excellent voices, with Moffett's pop-music sound and Scott's enthusiastic shouting standing out most of all. But that fine actor "ranney" holds his own from the first moment, not only with his poignant singing but also with his ingratiating acting as several different men. Todd Olson's directing is first-rate — though he doesn't always know what to do with forgotten Yolanda — and the wooden set, by Olson and John Malolepsy, is abstract enough to represent everything from a Brooklyn street to a Carolina church. And then, of course, there are designer Amy J. Cianci's hats — red and green and purple and white, some looking like space ships, some like mountaintops, some like roulette wheels. You want originality in the theater? Take a look at this headgear. But don't tell the older ladies: Yolanda looks best in a baseball cap.

I had a short conversation with an African-American woman sitting beside me during Crowns' intermission. She told me that she had lived in New York for 55 years, and that everything the play said about church hats was accurate. She was enjoying the show a lot: Singing with the actors, clapping to keep time, laughing at all the jokes. I'd like to think of her as a fellow critic, witnessing the play from a perspective I couldn't share, and finding virtue in its truthfulness, which she knew first-hand. I imagine Crowns was a triumph in her eyes, and who's to say that she wasn't right? For me, the play lacked a certain literary merit; for her, it spoke eloquently about African-American culture. I grew tired of all the hat-talk; she saw it as analyzing a complicated phenomenon.

Could we both be right? I can't say for sure.

But I can — hesitantly — recommend this insistently special musical.

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