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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the October 2, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

The Queens of `Crowns’

Sundays are a precious gift to the hardworking woman,

writes Maya Angelou in her foreword to the extraordinary book


A Portrait of Black Women in Church Hats." "In the right


Angelou continues, "the Black woman’s smile is resplendent."

"Crowns" is a compendium of 50 portrait photographs by Michael

Cunningham. In striking black and white they are as smooth and


as brushed velvet. The portraits are accompanied by 50 equally


personal stories, narrated by the hat wearers and harvested by writer

Craig Marberry.

This month "Crowns" becomes a Mercer County phenomenon when

a dramatized "Crowns," commissioned by McCarter Theater, and

written and directed by Regina Taylor, has its world premiere at


beginning October 15. In an ambitious Trenton-Princeton partnership,

McCarter has teamed up with Ellarslie, the Trenton City Museum, in

grand Cadwalader Park, to bring a traveling exhibit of Cunningham’s

life-size "Crowns" portraits to town. The exhibit opens at

Ellarslie with a festive authors’ signing party on Friday, October

4, from 6 to 9 p.m.

"The intensity that Michael Cunningham has captured in these


is phenomenal," says Brian Hill, director of the Ellarslie Museum.

Hill has added this exhibition of 30 "Crowns" portraits and

accompanying texts into his gallery schedule.

"This is truly a case `hattitude,’" Hill continues. Four


hats, and a fifth polka-dotted hat with its matching pocketbook


the Ellarslie exhibit.

Looking at Cunningham’s fine portraits you might think you’re looking

at portraits from Harpers Bazaar. Yet these are not models captured

on film, but down-to-earth church-going African-American women.

Cunningham and Marberry both hail from North Carolina and dedicate

their book to "our favorite hat queens: our mothers." As part

of the festive activities, the authors will return to McCarter for

opening night of the musical inspired by their book. This will be

followed on Saturday, October 19, by an unusual Ellarslie tea party,

with some of the women featured in the "Crowns" book as


On Sunday, October 20, McCarter offers a free Dialogue

on Drama program, following the 2 p.m. matinee, with guest speakers

playwright Regina Taylor, and authors Cunningham and Marberry.

"Church hats are a peculiar convergence of faith and fashion,"

writes Marberry. "My challenge was to elicit from these hat queens

stories as individual and compelling as the hats they wear."

Sanclary Saunders, pictured here and on the cover of "Crowns,"

a retired printing company embosser, now in her 70s, has a hauntingly

peculiar story to tell Marberry about the ugliest hat she ever saw.

Her sister-in-law wanted her to buy it and suggested that Ms. Saunders

live with it for a few months — "It might grow on you,"

she insisted. After three months Saunders’ opinion was crystal clear:

"Wouldn’t wear it to a pigpen" she announced. "I don’t

know what they were thinking when they made that hat. Don’t think

they were thinking at all."

— Nicole Plett

Crowns, the Exhibit, Ellarslie, Trenton City Museum,

Cadwalader Park, 609-989-3632. Opening reception and book signing

for "Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats" with

photographer Michael Cunningham and writer Craig Marberry. Show on

view to November 5. Free. Friday, October 4, 6 to 9 p.m.

Crowns: the Inspiration, Ellarslie, Trenton City

Museum ,

Cadwalader Park, 609-989-3632. Tea time reception and book signing

for "Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats." Meet

the women of Greensboro, North Carolina, who inspired the book. Free

with reservation. Saturday, October 19, 3 to 5 p.m.

Crowns, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place,


Opening night for Regina Taylor’s gospel-driven show with choreography

by Ronald K. Brown and music direction by Linda Twine. To November

3. $24 to $47. Friday, October 18, 8 p.m.

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