Illustration by Franky Olivares

Their beauty and countenance commands respect. The ladies of the church, these hat queens adorn themselves as their ancestors did, their headpieces so ornate they may even catch God’s eye. 

On select dates between Feb. 22 and March 3, UC Santa Cruz’s African American Theater Arts Troupe (AATAT) will explore African American church culture in its production of “Crowns.” Under the instruction of artistic director Don Williams, the troupe hopes to educate the audience through exposure to this facet of Black  existence.

“Coming out to see ‘Crowns’ will give you an eye-opening experience of seeing African Americans in a whole different light,” Williams said. “If you haven’t been to a Black church, you have no idea how we  function.”

Many within the Black community are familiar with the intricate hats the ladies of the old-school church don every Sunday. However, few know the history surrounding the elaborate headpieces their grandmothers, mothers and aunties wear. Playwright Regina Taylor’s “Crowns” explores the history surrounding these church hats as symbols of resilience, rooted in African fashion and recontextualized in post-Civil War United States.

“Crowns” is a musical that uses gospel music to tell the story of 17-year-old Yolanda, whose mother sends her to North Carolina in the wake of her brother’s murder. There she meets her Grandmother Shaw, who — in the company of five other ladies of the church — shares her wisdom with the wayward Yolanda. 

Each woman uses the story surrounding their hats as a springboard into a lesson they share with Yolanda. Every hat symbolizes its wearer’s triumph over adversity. The hats’ beauty lies as much in their symbolism as in their aesthetic appeal.

“I really want people to analyze what they’re wearing and how they’re holding themselves while wearing these hats and dresses,” said costume designer and second-year Ananda Brooks. “The culture of the hats, the headdresses […] is a sign of beauty, a sign of power, a sign of  importance.” 

Church hats are one example of U.S. Black culture highlighting its African roots. By putting African-influenced cultural artifacts center stage, “Crowns” presents Black women as bearers of a much more complex cultural heritage than the last 200 years have afforded, a history many don’t care to recognize. 

The play gives insight into some of the cultures African American women represent, said student actor Jazmine Logan. Actors such as Grammy-nominated vocalist Tammi Brown carry on the mantle of those same cultures. 

Brown will perform alongside AATAT student actors. A member of the African American roots music group the Cultural Heritage choir, Brown can sing her way through the history of Black people in America — from field hollers to spirituals to blues, jazz and gospel. 

Having grown up around church culture, Brown provides a personal insight into what many perceive as a mere eccentricity within Black culture. The first hat-bearing ladies of the church proudly donned their hats as one of the few valued possessions they had the means to purchase as former slaves. 

“This play really focuses on how the African American woman really treasured those hats,” Brown said. “And those hats are a historic marker of independence, freedom, some wealth for the Black who was prior the African slave.”

For a few precious hours every Sunday in post-Civil War America, Black women could carry themselves as queens. The hats they wore — and still wear — to church are influenced by the headdresses of their African ancestors. Having a link to their past gave Black women a sense pride in the face of an oppressive and racist world that sought to annihilate their sense of dignity.

Although they are still valued less than their white male and female counterparts in the workforce, Black women in America have spent the last 200 years developing a sense of self-worth that transcends material  goods.

“Today, African American women don’t really symbolize or put a lot of value on a hat. The value is who you are, and what you have accomplished,” Brown said. “It’s just the symbolism that’s changed, and morphed into something more advanced than just a hat. Because now we have means to buy more than just a hat.”

Although progress has been made since the days of Black slavery and sharecropping in America, Brown contends that having informed conversations about race relations in the U.S. is necessary to prevent the perpetuation of racial injustice that has, perhaps permanently, marked this  country. 

“Crowns” provides a rare space within an institution with a low percentage of African American students — UCSC has just 2 percent as of the 2018 campus diversity census — to start a conversation about cultural difference and the historical implications of race relations which continue to affect this country.

“I’m aware that it will be a primarily white audience,” Brown said. “It’s good, because they need to be educated as well. […] It’s like stepping out of yourself and looking at this story with different eyes.”