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'Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats'

A new off-Broadway play is all about hats -- sort of.

Crowns tells the story of six African-American women through the hats they wear to church. For Weekend Edition Saturday, Jeff Lunden reports on the stories behind the hats.

In 1998, North Carolina photographer Michael Cunningham began taking pictures of women in their hats. His friend, journalist Craig Marberry, thought they should put together a book of the photos and the stories behind them. Marberry was curious why so many African-American women wear flamboyant hats to church.

"I think it's because it's rooted in the African tradition that says that when one presents oneself before God… that you should be at your best –- that you should present excellence before the Almighty," Marberry says. "And that tradition of adorning the head for worship is a very African tradition.

Even before the book was finished, Marberry approached the artistic director of McCarter Theatre in Princeton, N.J., about adapting it for the stage.

The tales that Cunningham and Marberry collected were eventually turned into a theater piece by playwright and director Regina Taylor, perhaps best known as the Golden Globe award-winning actress in the television series I'll Fly Away. She says she wanted the hats to tell the stories.

"Hats reveal and they conceal," Taylor says. "And… in the course of this play, we're taking away all these layers, in terms of where these women come from, who their parents were and also beyond their memories to the subconscious memory that's been passed down, from generation to generation."

Crowns takes many of the stories in the book right off the page. From the more than 50 women in the book, Taylor created six composite characters. She tells their story over the course of a Sunday. The audience sees the women get ready for church, attend a morning service, a wedding, a funeral and a baptism. Five older women are joined by a visitor -- a younger woman from Brooklyn.

The young woman is a pivotal character. Taylor says she's "indoctrinated... baptized in this history. And she's changed by this experience of finding out about these women, through their hats."

Photographer Cunningham says the lone younger character is consistent with his experience in collecting images for the book. There are many photos of women in their 40s and older, but very few of women who are younger.

"I think if younger women really realize what these women had to go through, just to be able to wear a hat -- not being able to go into certain stores and buy hats that they wanted and not having… the money to afford a nice hat -- I think if they really realize it's more than just sitting a pretty hat on top of your head, that a lot of them would respect it more," Cunningham says.

When they were working on the book, photographer Cunningham and author Marberry learned that most women own more than one hat. On average, Mayberry says, the 50 women in the book owned 54 hats each.

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