They call it "hattitude." In Memphis, as in much of the South, where the adornment and the philosophy that comes with it is as de rigueur as a few dollars for the collection plate, many African-American women wouldn't dare step foot into their house of worship without a show-stopping, eye-popping hat on their heads.
Thumb through a copy of Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry's coffee table book Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats, which captures North Carolina worshippers in all their glory, and you'll see dozens of variations on the straw Easter bonnet - black toppers enveloped in swaths of ribbon and lace, geometric planes tasseled and trimmed, and pastel pillboxes festooned with delicate silk flowers.
Drive through Memphis any Sunday afternoon, and you'll find local variations on the trend: hats, purchased in fancy department stores or painstakingly fashioned by talented crafters, worn proudly to and from church.
"It's really about taking pride in being a child of God and being ready to present themselves before Him," explains Tony Horne, director of Playhouse on the Square's musical production of Crowns, a play based on Cunningham and Marberry's book.
"Some people, clearly outsiders, take offense at the tradition. They believe it's ostentatious," Horne continues. "But the concept comes from Africans who similarly adorned themselves for worship, who wanted to look their very best so they could meet the King. It's a beautiful thing, an opportunity for creative expression and honoring the Lord.
"It's not about competition either," he cautions. "It's about individualism and supporting your sisters."
Horne admits he's in new territory. "Before directing Crowns, I didn't know much about any of this. I grew up in the Catholic Church, where women wore much simpler hats," he says with a chuckle.
Yet Horne, the former managing director of the Memphis Black Repertory Theatre, seems perfect for the job. The native Memphian directed an all-female cast in For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf, and staged the controversial No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs last year. A Playhouse employee when the Black Repertory Theatre was founded, he helped establish the minority thespian group. When it disbanded in 2002, he formed a transitional company called the Mosaic Group to produce For Colored Girls under the aegis of Playhouse on the Square.
Currently a professor at Bowling Green State University in northwest Ohio, Horne still considers Playhouse on the Square his artistic home. This summer, he returned to Memphis for his entire vacation to stage Crowns and direct a local production of A Question of Color, which ran at TheatreWorks last month.
Although Horne is quick to emphasize the necessity of minority-based theater troupes, he also recognizes the importance of more established community theaters. "When the Black Repertory Theatre closed, it was important that Playhouse pick up the slack," he says of African-American actors and behind-the-scenes hands like costume designer Gregory Horton and set designer Timothy Jones, who helped stage the current production.
He also sees Crowns drawing a larger, more diverse audience than regular Playhouse productions. "There's a large segment of the Memphis population interested in religious-themed theater," he says. "This is the perfect show to appeal to the theater's primary core audience, as well as to get people in who have never been here."
The play, written by Regina Taylor, follows Yolanda, a Brooklynite who is sent down South to live with her churchgoing grandmother. Immersed in the traditions of older African-American women, she discovers faith, sisterhood, and self-confidence in the lessons they provide. "The women's words are real," Horne maintains, "and they provide a nice flow and arc. Everything they say and do is for Yolanda's benefit, to help her grow as a woman.
"There's a huge amount of new work coming out of the black theater community," Horne notes, adding, "but these plays are coming out of regional theaters, not Broadway.
"Crowns is a different animal," he says. "It started out at a white theater in Princeton, New Jersey. Now every major theater - black and white - is staging it. You don't have to be a black female Christian to get it. [Taylor's script] is so funny, so poignant, and Yolanda's process of discovery will resonate with everyone."
That said, Horne admits that the play does especially well in the South. "It's a play about us - a play about Memphis, which is a city of churches," he says. Playhouse even tailored their production schedule to jibe with churchgoing audiences, moving their Sunday matinees to 3 p.m. And in celebration of the play's regional debut, Rebecca Powell, Playhouse's resident costume designer, organized a display of Phillip Parker's portraits of Memphis women in their crowns, which will be displayed in the theater lobby.
"Unfortunately," Horne concludes, "the only thing we couldn't do was encourage audience members to wear their own crowns to the performances. At Playhouse, we don't have stadium seating," he laments, "so there's no way anyone could see around them or over their heads."