After seeing The Mammy Project, it will be hard to look at an Aunt Jemima pancake mix without thinking about its true ingredients: racism, stereotypes, and oppression. Writer and performer Michelle Matlock blows the lid off this century-old pancake box in her must-see one-woman show about a former slave named Nancy Green, who found everlasting fame as the smiling face of Aunt Jemima. In 1889, a man named Chris Rutt was looking for a catchy name for his company's newest product: ready-made just add water pancake mix. He found it while attending a minstrel show, where a black-faced performer sang a catchy song called "Aunt Jemima," which also plays on the soundtrack to Matlock's show. While the tune is indeed catchy, its implications make it hard to tap your toes to.
Minstrel shows were created by white entertainers to humorously depict the lives of slaves through imitation and caricature. In a scene so loaded with truth that its every syllable stings, Matlock performs her own minstrel show with lyrics that blatantly reveal the genre's true intentions. Afterward, she questions whether these shows are truly gone or are merely lying low, waiting for a comeback.
There are scenes and images in The Mammy Project that will stick to your heart, especially since the legacy of Aunt Jemima continues today. Even Matlock was asked to read for the part of Aunt Jemima in a pancake commercial as recently as 2001. It wasn't until she arrived at the casting room and saw the script that the reality of what she was auditioning for sunk in. She couldn't stop thinking about the origins of this role and the woman who made it famous over a century ago.
Although Matlock is upbeat and humorous in every scene, it is the pain that we do not see or hear that is most present onstage. Her ability to stay humorous on the surface while boiling with indignity and repressed rage underneath reveals the kind of person Nancy Green must have been. When she served pancakes at the Chicago's World Fair in 1893, she was instructed to inform customers that she had left her plantation home to bring her pancake mix to the white folks up north, when in truth she had come in search of the two children who were taken from her long ago. But with the nation still recovering from the Civil War, guilty consciences needed to hear that this former slave hadn't left her master for any other reason than to share a pancake recipe.
Unfortunately, the public does not know much about the real woman behind the smiling face on the pancake box. When Green died in 1923, she was eulogized for being a woman whose pancakes would live forever, although nothing about the recipe was actually her own. The tragic reality of Green's life is that she was born a slave and died a trademark.
But the play is about more than just her. Matlock holds the image of the mammy up to our faces, asking us to look at the way it has been popularized in American culture. In one scene, Matlock shows clips from Gone With the Wind on a small projector. We watch as Scarlett O'Hara reads off a list of demands for her mammy, the most ridiculous being that she should tailor a new dress out of window curtains. It is here that Matlock stops the clip. "Frankly, my dear," she says in her own version of a mammy, "you can kiss my ass."
Though Matlock's revelations are upsetting, they are also uplifting. By the end of the play, we see in her the kind of spirit that we wish Green had had: a resilient, determined woman who, when faced with similar odds, would never allow herself to get trapped in a box.