Hallelujah Hattitude

Crowns, a celebratory musical about church hats, kicks off a series of Straz-produced shows

Photo: Joseph Brown

Apostle Paul was adamant about this point. When a man prays or prophesizes, his head must not be covered. Women, on the other hand …

“But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head …”

1 Corinthians 11:5, KJV

Paul, in all likelihood, had no idea what he was starting.

Women in African-American churches turned covering their heads into a flamboyant celebration of spirituality and self-expression.

They’re called crowns because “hat” is just too puny a word to represent these creations. They are colorful. They are eye-grabbing. They are marvels of millinery craft and imagination.

Crowns also is the name of a musical opening Feb. 17 and running through March 6. In it, a big city girl is transplanted to South Carolina, where she is introduced to the concept of the crown, as explained by a group of proud, crown-wearing women of the church.

To help us prepare for Crowns, we met with a group of proud, crown-wearing women of the church – First Baptist Church of College Hill in Tampa, to be specific.

They put on their Sunday finest – on a Tuesday, no less – to show us how they honored the Lord by dressing to the nines.

“You try to look your best when you go anywhere else, why not look your best for the Lord?” said Sandra Nelson. “I’ve worn hats to church since I was a little girl. I feel like I’m not dressed without a hat.”

Her friend Janet Clark was introduced to the tradition by her grandmother.

“When you entered the church, you had to have your head covered,” Clark said. “And they wore nice hats.

Left to right: Alma Rhea Purify, Betty Kinsey, Janet Clark, and Sandra Nelson. (Photo: Joseph Brown)

Clark has arrived at the church with a trunkful of crowns for the ladies to model. When she had her boutique – Elegant Fashions by Janet – she sold hats and dresses similar to the ones she, Nelson and their companions – Betty Kinsey and Alma Rhea Purify – are dressed in today.

Posing for photographs outside the church, the foursome literally stops traffic. A man brings his car to a halt to shout, “Y’all looking lovely!” “I just want to say your hats are beautiful,” calls out a woman in a minivan.

The ladies accept the compliments graciously. They’ve dressed to look their best but it’s not for vanity’s sake.

“We try to look our best, not as a matter of just being fashionable, but to give reverence to the Lord,” Clark said. “As older women we should set an example when we praise God. We are trying to make a statement that we should dress our best when we enter the house of the Lord.”

Photos: Joseph Brown

Crowns celebrates black heritage and resilience and music and attitude,” said Clareann Despain, The Straz’s producing manager. She’s in charge of the shows the Straz produces itself, such as Crowns.

Despain is excited about the team she’s gathered to bring the show to the Jaeb Theater stage.

Bob Devin Jones will direct. Jones is a 40-year theater veteran as an actor, playwright and director. He founded Studio at 620 in St. Petersburg and has been a major part of the Bay area’s cultural community since moving to St. Petersburg in 1997.

The choreographer is Alex Jones, founder of St. Petersburg dance company project ALCHEMY.

Costumes will be by Saidah Ben Judah, who worked at the Public Theater under Joseph Papp.

“It’s an exciting team coming together,” Despain said. “I think it’s going to be a beautiful show.”

The Straz Center is producing three other shows for the 2022 season: Little Shop of Horrors (April 6-May 1), Nunsense: A-Men (July 13-Aug. 7) and Avenue Q (Aug. 31-Sept. 25).

“I think it’s a really strong season and one that that will let us laugh our way through the global challenges that we’re facing. I think that’s a huge benefit,” said Despain. “Some folks say every show needs to have a hard-hitting message but sometimes that’s not what we need. This is a really great example of us being able to be responsive to the moment.”

Being responsive to the audience is key, Despain said.

“When we produce locally, we’re able to be more responsive to what is going on and what people want because we have a slightly shorter lead time,” Despain said. “Things start and end with the audience. What do we think they want to see and how do we make sure when they see it that it’s the best possible experience?”

Another benefit of producing shows is the chance to showcase local talent.

“I don’t think folks realize sometimes just how much talent we have here in the Tampa Bay area,” Despain said. “It’s really remarkable.”

Mathew McGee, a mainstay of the local theater scene, will take the stage in July as Mother Superior in Nunsense: A-Men.

“He’s a local fan favorite and an amazing performer,” Despain said. “That’s going to be spectacular. It’s a comedy with a lot of heart.”

Avenue Q, which arrives in August, also has a lot of heart, Despain said. It’s also noted for having puppets and a lot of raunchy and bawdy humor.

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