Why our 'crowns' matter in African-American culture

Raleigh Little Theatre's "Crowns" opens August 25. Areon Mobasher Photography.Raleigh Little Theatre's "Crowns" opens August 25. Areon Mobasher Photography.

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Yolanda W. Rabun, an actress, singer and former board chair at Raleigh Little Theatre, played a featured role in Burning Coal Theatre’s 2010 production of “Crowns.” Raleigh Little Theatre’s production of “Crowns” opens August 25.

It’s not just hair that is a black woman’s crowning glory, it’s also the hat; and not just any hat she chooses to wear, but THE hat.

[Related: Enter the Raleigh Little Theatre "Crowns” contest!]

You see, growing up in the South, I remember seeing many hat boxes that my grandmother or mother would choose from to pick just the right hat for church or some other special community outing. And notably, depending on the event, a hat choice could range from a simple box-like laced overlay adornment placed perfectly at the front of my grandmother’s head to a big and beautiful flowerbed of colorful feathers worn by my mother.

Both crowns attracted attention and conversation, and gave me the best memories of my childhood.

In fact, by the time I was in high school and on the homecoming court, I insisted on wearing a royal purple box-like hat with sparkling feathers, sequins and diamond-like studs. I felt like I was continuing a tradition; I was wearing my own crown and like my grandmother and mother, I was the conversation of the day. But to be honest, there was more to it. Wearing my hat became more of an experience of embracing what I wanted to emulate and become: a shining light with flair! Wearing my hat, I gained strength and purpose and steel-like confidence. Wearing my hat, I was honoring my mother and grandmother.

Wearing my hat became more of an experience of embracing what I wanted to emulate and become: a shining light with flair! — Yolanda W. Rabun

As a professional actor, these memories were eventually my sole inspiration when I played the role of Mabel in Regina Taylor’s “Crowns” during Burning Coal Theatre’s 2010 season. By a twist of fate, in that production, not a single actor wore a hat; instead, we were given the direction to embody the stories of our crowns in our words, actions and songs to give the audience their opportunity for a personal “experience.”

[R[Related: Get tickets to Raleigh Little Theatre’s "Crowns”]a>

I was wary of that challenge at first. But looking back now, it was worth it. I have to admit that interacting with the audience, allowing them to hear their strength in the play’s instructional words and feel their purpose through the play’s rich texture of songs was powerful and personal. Equally amazing was to see the audience walk away with reflective confidence because of the hat they envisioned for themselves.

Today, I wear hats all the time. In fact, my “hattitude” is displayed on the cover of my latest studio album, “Yolanda.” I guess you can say I am a hat queen just like my mother and grandmother were. But I love it. It’s probably why I am super thrilled that Raleigh Little Theatre is staging “Crowns” in its upcoming season! I will be first in line because hats “on or off,” it’s an engaging production and wonderful celebration of African-American culture.

Plus, given Raleigh Little Theatre’s reputation for high quality productions, “Crowns” will surely be one not to miss!

Enter the “Crowns” contest

What is the story of the ‘Crown’ that you wear?

Countless black women would rather attend church naked than hatless. For these women, a church hat, flamboyant as it may be, is no mere fashion accessory; it’s a cherished African-American custom, one observed with boundless passion by black women of various religious denominations. A woman’s hat speaks long before its wearer utters a word. It’s what Deirdre Guion calls “hattitude … there’s a little more strut in your carriage when you wear a nice hat. There’s something special about you.” If a hat says a lot about a person, it says even more about a people — the customs they observe, the symbols they prize, and the fashions they fancy. — excerpt from “Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats,” a book by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry

Enter the contest: Submit a photo of yourself or a loved one in their favorite church hat and up to 500 words about why your crowns are important to you. Up to six winners will be chosen by sponsors and the staff at Raleigh Little Theatre! Winners will receive the following:

– two (2) tickets to opening night of “Crowns” at Raleigh Little Theatre on Friday, August 25

– $50 restaurant gift certificate

– a portrait taken of you in your favorite Crown to display in the lobby of the Cantey V. Sutton Theatre during the run of the show

Deadline to enter is Sunday, July 30 at 11 p.m. Contest is limited to residents of the Greater Triangle area of North Carolina. Email submissions (the story of your Crown and a photo) to crowns@raleighlittletheatre.org.

Good luck! We look forward to reading your submissions.

Special unveiling: There will be a special event featuring the winners and their families on Sunday, August 20. We will unveil the portraits, celebrate with winners and meet some of the cast members and the director.

“Crowns” is a musical by Regina Taylor, based on Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry’s book. Raleigh Little Theatre’s production is directed by Terra Hodge.

Sponsored by Arts Now, the Triangle Tribune and Raleigh Little Theatre

Raleigh Little Theatre’s “Crowns”

August 25 to September 10
Cantey V. Sutton Theatre (Reserved Seating)
Ticket prices (including taxes): adults: $28; *students/seniors: $24; first Sunday: $15 for all
*Seniors are age 62 and up. Students are through college. Purchase tickets here.


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