McCarter play synopses are provided to help inform curious or potential audience members about the story content of our plays in production. They are fairly detailed in their description of a play’s events. Some may want to read the overview of the story below before the performance, while others may skip the synopsis to avoid the revelation of plot points before experiencing the play in performance.
The choice is up to you!
The Man, embodying Elegba, the orisha of crossroads enters to enact a ritual blessing of beginning, of revealing the way. He is joined by others, including seventeen-year-old Yolanda, who is lying on her back on the floor. Suddenly the sound of the L-Train finds Yolanda on a train platform in Chicago at night; she raps about life in her neighborhood, “Englewood.” Yolanda is sent down south to stay with her grandmother Mother Shaw after her brother Teddy was shot and killed in Englewood. In Darlington, Mother Shaw leads the ensemble in singing “When I Rise.” Yolanda observes that Mother Shaw rises up at six o’clock every Sunday morning, occupying herself with reading, sewing, and singing. Mother Shaw sings a song that was passed down from her mother, “Time to Get Ready,” as she and the other ladies get dressed for church. Concurrently, Yolanda raps about how she is resistant to adopt the early-rising Christian lifestyle and traditions practiced by Grandma Shaw and her friends.
During “Time to Get Ready,” each woman tells a personal story about what hats mean to them. Wanda explains the significance of church and the ritual of getting ready for Sunday service. Her grandmother was a hat queen, which Wanda defines is a woman who owns at least one hundred church hats. Mabel, the preacher’s wife, shares how her passion for wearing hats began with her mother. Jeanette tells a story about how one of her hats caught the attention of a gentleman at a department store, and says that wearing a hat can make you feel good inside. Velma describes how wearing hats reminds her of her mother because her mother used to tell her that a hat could provide protection. Mother Shaw talks about her own mother Leona’s relationship to hats as she continues with her song. Yolanda and Mother Shaw bicker over how Yolanda will not listen to Mother Shaw and wants to return home to Englewood.
Yolanda’s stay at Mother Shaw’s is extended to a year, and during that year she attends church every Sunday. All the women happily put on their church hats, or crowns, including Yolanda, who begrudgingly wears a hat given to her by Mother Shaw. The women and the preacher process into church to the tune of, “Oh When the Saints Come Marching In.” Yolanda pushes back against Mother Shaw’s rules, which prompts all the church women to educate her about “The Hat Queen Rules.” The rules include: how a hat should sit on one’s head, the importance of selecting a flattering hat, and that one should never touch another woman’s hat.
As the preacher begins the service, Yolanda raps about her experiences at church as a child. Following her rap, the other women of the congregation describe the various personalities they have seen at church. Wanda tells a story about the older women she used to see at her church as a young girl, and accompanies this story with a fan dance. Mother Shaw then leads the Morning Prayer in a ring shout to open up and receive God. Yolanda pulls herself away from the ring shout to sing “Believe,” as her brother’s death is taking a toll on her.
In an effort to reach Yolanda, the preacher delves into a sermon on violence and how doing good in one’s community is more important than wearing a new hat to church every Sunday. Before beginning this sermon, he uses his wife Mabel as an example of a woman who cares more about her looks than about worship. In response, Mabel shares a lifting message of worship through the song, “Run And Tell That.” She defends her belief in the power of appearances—her crown and attire helps to set a proper example at church.
Yolanda once again challenges Mother Shaw’s faith and remarks on their lack of connection. Mother Shaw tells a story about a woman who inspired her as a young woman in church, Ms. Mary, who sung every Sunday without being asked. Velma sings the spiritual “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” which leads Yolanda to reminisce about her time in Englewood. She cannot shake her rough upbringing and all the violence she’s seen in the streets of Englewood, and she does not feel that Mother Shaw understands her perspective. In the song “Crazy,” Yolanda reveals how her boyfriend Aaron was her family when she had no one else, even though he brought her into a world of gang violence and drug dealing. She wishes she was back in her familiar hometown.
Yolanda describes how her on her first day of school in Darlington she was laughed at by the other students. Her classmates perceived her usual unique style as crazy. Despite feeling like an outcast, Yolanda stuck to her ways and proudly wore Teddy’s red cap through the halls. She refuses to change. In an effort to reach her, the women of the church sing “About Love #1” to teach her what love is. They are concerned about her, and in this song, they notice scars on her arms indicating that she has tried to harm herself in the past. The women encourage Yolanda to open to her heart to love and to God despite her stubbornness.
In an attempt to connect to Yolanda once more, Mother Shaw, once an avid hat owner, recalls how her own stubbornness played into her marriage to her husband J.T. The song, “Too Many Hats” details Mother Shaw’s and J.T.’s argument over her quickly growing hat collection. Mother Shaw admits that her stubbornness was a point of tension in her marriage and relationship with her daughter, Yolanda’s mother. Even though it caused distance between her and her baby girl, J.T. stayed by her side until he died. Mother Shaw no longer owns a lot of hats because of her relationship with J.T. She mourns J.T’s passing as the women surround her in a laying on of hands. Yolanda observes this ritual and feels out of place, thinking that no one sees her for who she really is. The women begin to honor the memory of their loved ones by sharing stories about them, and Mother Shaw leads the group in the hymn, “How I Got Over.” The women place their loved one’s hats down at the gravesite. Following their instructions, Yolanda places her Teddy’s hat on the gravesite as well.
Spoiler alert! If you would like to read what happens next in the story and how the play ends, click here.
The Man puts on Teddy’s baseball cap to embody Teddy; Teddy and Yolanda reminisce about their lives together during the song “Shot In The Dark.” Yolanda finally reveals her guilt over the role she played in Teddy’s murder. After Teddy failed out of college, he returned home to Englewood where Yolanda introduced him to Aaron. Teddy ran drugs for Aaron, until they got into an argument about the drug money, which resulted in Aaron shooting Teddy in the head. Yolanda says, “My love shot my love and killed me.” The women sing a reprise of “About Love” to comfort her.
To help Yolanda, Mother Shaw tells her about her own mother Leona so that Yolanda can understand her history and the struggles of those who came before her. Leona attended Bennett College in Greensboro. She was a rebel and did not follow the school’s strict dress code until she was reprimanded by Bennett College’s president, Dr. Player. Dr. Player said “that a women and black is a rebel by wearing a hat.” The only time Dr. Player encouraged the women to not wear hats was during the civil rights movement. Yolanda takes the baseball cap off her head and Mother Shaw wraps Yolanda’s head with her shawl as she sings “Take Me to the Water.” In the song “Wash Over,” Yolanda finally accepts the faith and her family traditions, and is baptized by the churchgoers.
Back in Englewood, Chicago, Yolanda is reborn and has renamed herself “neighborhood activist.” She is enrolled at Columbia College and takes her mother to African Studies classes on Saturdays. Yolanda now owns sixty hats: street hats and church hats. She mostly wears her gelees to feel connected to her ancestors, who give her strength. All come together to sing the final number, “Walk All Over God’s Heaven.”