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It's all about Hattitude

African-American women have been wearing ornate hats to church for as long as anyone can remember.

Whether decorated with feathers, rhinestones, ribbons, bows or jewels, the hats reflect the distinctive personalities of those who wear them.

The tradition will be celebrated in the musical "Crowns," opening next week at Stage 3 Theatre in Sonora in time for Black History Month.

While the hat-wearing practice is more common in the South, it's not unknown around here, said René Patterson, associate pastor of Modesto's Evangel Christian Fellowship, who is performing in the show.

"As a matter of fact, 21 ladies from the former church I attended, they still wear the hats, and 21 of them are coming to the show one night and they're going to wear hats," Patterson said.

Patterson added that if you visit any predominantly black church around the valley, you'll see at least a few hats.

Inspired by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry's coffee-table book "Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats," the musical by Regina Taylor ran off-Broadway in 2003. It has since been staged around the country, drawing big crowds and critical acclaim.

It tells the story of a teenage girl from Brooklyn shipped to the South to live with her grandmother following the murder of her brother. Several church women take Yolanda under their wings and offer guidance. Through spirituals and ballads, the girl eventually learns the importance of "hattitude."

The hat tradition was inspired by the Bible (1 Corinthians 11:3-10 says women should keep their heads covered) and African customs.

"African-Americans do very African things without even knowing it," says one character in the show. "Adorning the head is one of those things."

Also, during the time of slavery, church was the only opportunity for blacks to dress up.

Because Sonora's population is largely white, Stage 3 had to look to the valley for its cast, said director Don Bilotti. Patterson and the other performers, Michelle Allison, Loretta Spence, Melina Hunter, Renée Levine-Christian, Carla Hunt and Bryant Mills, all live in Modesto or Merced.

Many of them already know a lot of the songs in the show because they've been singing them most of their lives.

Bilotti said he is deferring to them for advice on how to present the music.

"I'm a middle-age white guy from Oakland," he said he told the cast. "You have to teach me."

Bilotti learned about the show from Dennis Brown, the production's musical director, who is black. The director of music and liturgy at St. Patrick's Catholic Church in Sonora and a regular actor throughout the region, including at Stage 3, Brown was instrumental in finding the performers. Some have little theater experience but sing regularly in church.

Patterson, who does have an acting background and appeared in both Townsend Opera Players' and Newman Performing Arts' productions of "Ragtime," said she was happy to participate in a musical that celebrates a beloved tradition.

She grew up in a Baptist church in Vicksburg, Miss., and recognizes the women featured in the show. She hopes audience members will grow to love them as well.

"I want them to understand our spiritual culture for women and to see not only that the way we dress is important to us as women but that we pass it down to the young women," she said.

Patterson's godmother, Inell Shephard of Modesto, donated a collection of 35 hats, which will be featured in the show.

Bilotti said he hopes to bring a more diverse audience to Stage 3, which attracts a predominantly white crowd and features mostly white actors. He appreciated how the musical showcases the strength and courage of the women and celebrates spirituality while not becoming a religious production.

"It speaks exactly to what theater at its best does," he said. "It heals the world."

WHAT: "Crowns"

WHEN: Feb. 16-March 25

WHERE: Stage 3 Theatre, 208 S. Green St., Sonora

TICKETS: $10-15

CALL: 536-1778