The indomitable Capathia Jenkins recently dazzled Broadway audiences with a solo in which she commanded, "Let a big black lady stop the show." She went on to do exactly that, and in the context of the tongue-in-cheek Martin Short: Fames Becomes Me, the song was an irreverent comment on typecasting and our stilted theatrical expectations. Now Jenkins has resurfaced as another big black lady—Hattie McDaniel, most renowned for her Academy Award-winning turn as Scarlett O'Hara's feisty Mammy in Gone With the Wind. But instead of simply stealing the show and soaking up the applause, Jenkins portrays a woman who clearly stole the show but then had the show stolen away from her.
In (mis)Understanding Mammy: The Hattie McDaniel Story, McDaniel appears in her hospital room, coping with the breast cancer that would eventually take her life. She still has a bone to pick with her most vicious enemy, however, and she conjures up the ghost of NAACP leader Walter White. It's a revenge fantasy worth indulging, and playwright Joan Ross Sorkin's clever framework gives McDaniel fervent motivation to tell her story. This smart and persuasive drama reveals the complex history behind one of Hollywood's most important actresses.
McDaniel first began performing on the vaudeville circuit in Denver, where in the thriving hustle of a "boomtown" race wasn't a complete limitation. But when she moved on to Hollywood, she found herself cast predominantly in stereotypical "mammy" roles. Still, McDaniel was happy just to be working, and then she landed Gone With the Wind.
McDaniel was the first black actress to attend the Academy Awards ceremony, and even though she also became the first black actress to win one, she was segregated from the other guests and relegated to the back of the venue. Signed by a film studio, she soon became the go-to actress for mammy roles. But when White began to attack "mammyism" and its harmful consequences, he eventually had McDaniel blacklisted.
To our contemporary eyes, the ever-grinning mammy character is obviously derogatory, but McDaniel puts up a robust defense of the roles that defined her career. "I'd rather play a maid than be one," she points out. In fact, she felt that her performances were progressive--not only did she "reinvent" the mammy figure, making her less subordinate and full of strength and personality (in one movie her maid character even had her own day job), but she also campaigned fiercely--and successfully--to remove the "n" word from the script of Gone With the Wind.
None of this mattered to White, however, and he resolved to eradicate an egregious stereotype. But as skittish producers began to fear White's persecution, reliable film work for black actors became severely limited.
Jenkins plays McDaniel with conviction and grace, and her best moments, perhaps unsurprisingly, surface when she embodies McDaniel in song. Naturally bright-eyed and bubbly, with an enormous smile that reflects the spotlight, Jenkins, as McDaniel, unabashedly glows when remembering the exultation of a live audience. Still, in her visceral rendition of "Lady Luck Blues," the depth and devastation begin to trickle out, and Jenkins contorts her sunny face into an ugly, grotesque twist. Her throaty, rangy voice unflinchingly probes the dark, complex corridors that lined McDaniel's life.
Director David Glenn Armstrong's simple and effective staging is buttressed by Jenkins's ardent performance. The narrative loses steam during a few over-expository passages, but it is thrilling to watch McDaniel steadily circle White, gathering together the seminal moments of her life to defend both her career and her humanity. What McDonald most wanted is respect, the play tells us, and here we have the opportunity to watch her fight for it.
Most tragically, White turned black people against McDaniel, who considered herself a pioneer for her race. Although neither Sorkin nor Armstrong makes much effort to connect these events to our contemporary moment, the implication is clear. Already, pundits are questioning presidential hopeful Barack Obama's essential "blackness" and how his race might affect his political career. Our national obsession with casting certain people in certain roles, it seems, is hardly a thing of the past.