Regina Taylor's musical Crowns professes to be a celebration of African American "hattitude," but it believes it's about so much more. So, I guess, do Delaware Theatre Company and director Kevin Ramsey, both of whom go on at length in the show's program notes to explain just how important it is that audiences see this work. Ramsey makes excuses for Taylor, explaining that the show's disorienting manner of zigzagging its locations and situations without explanation occurs because its setting is "the fabric of our times." If that's true, Taylor's fabric needs an iron, because it's a mess.
Photographer Michael Cunningham and journalist Craig Marberry produced the book Crowns, which inspired the musical, and women stare from its pages under toppers sleek and sophisticated, frivolous and feathery. Beside every portrait, a simple quotation sums up each woman's perspective on hats. These are touching and revealing, and they provide historical resonance. Some of this history made it into the staged version, and after all Taylor's forced padding, those facts rooted in time still resonate.
Her six characters have names, but they are rarely used, and the cast's sole man is named Man (honey-voiced Doug Eskew, who deserves better). Daniel P. Boylen's set, a clutter of awkward screens shuffled around to receive a series of redundant projections, adds no depth. When the topic is death, we see a graveyard and sunset. In church, we see stained glass and a church's exterior.
There's a story of sorts. Ashlei Dabney's Yolanda, a Brooklyn teenager, is sent to live with her grandmother in South Carolina. It's unclear which actor plays her grandmother, or who any of the women circling her and schooling her in "hat queen" rules are. Even stranger, Yolanda's backstory includes her brother's murder. I'm not sure why this subplot about Northern urban gun violence belongs in a show about Southern church ladies' hats, or, more seriously, the pride and prejudice behind them, but there it is, adding one more layer of confusion to what could have been a compelling topic. Anyway, Yolanda ultimately accepts fancy hats and Jesus, and everyone — whoever they are — sings a gospel medley. Amen.
What Crowns lacks in coherence, it makes up for in spirit. The talented cast members pour everything they have into lively performances and 23 gospel songs, or fragments of songs between millinery anecdotes, in 90 minutes. Costumer Brian Strachan also does his part to bolster the flimsy premise with a wide assortment of flowery, feathery, or fur-covered (can't begin to imagine where he dug up that fox-head number) chapeaux.