What is a crown? To some, it’s a symbol of royalty. To others a crown is a hat, but not just any hat. Skylight Music Theater’s production of Crowns: A Gospel Musical is about the African American tradition of wearing flamboyant and ornate hats to church.
The musical is based on the book of the same name, which features 50 portraits of African American women wearing their crowns. It includes short stories about the women who wear these hats, who they are and how their hats are an expression of their shared history.
“These women carry themselves with a level of dignity and respect. So much so that on a Sunday morning you don’t know who is the teacher, the lawyer, the doctor and the domestic worker,” says Sheri Williams-Pannell, the stage director of Crowns. “You don’t know, because once she places that crown, that hat on her head, she walks with such a level of self-esteem and pride.”
The styles of hats can vary greatly, and that could be due to their roots. Extravagant hats are found in many African cultures and that tradition carried over to the United States during slavery, when women would adorn their field hats with flowers and feathers for Sunday church services.
“The hats were used as a covering or protection from the sun, but there still was a pride of adornment and of creativity,” says Williams-Pannell. “This carried over into freedom when you’re able to save money and work toward having that special fashion accessory that made you feel extra special and beautiful and wonderful. And that became the hat. The hat that sometimes you’d have to save for months in order to afford.”