Hattie McDaniel led an extraordinary life. The first African-American to win an Academy Award, she still had to sit in the back of the ballroom until it was presented to her. A woman who played servants and slaves with a subversive wit and humor that left no doubt who held the upper hand, she was nonetheless attacked by the NAACP for perpetuating stereotypes. A strong woman who overcame many adversities, she continues to receive recognition for her amazing life, even fifty years after her death. Joan Ross Sorkin’s (mis)Understanding Mammy: The Hattie McDaniel Story is the latest nod to her remarkable achievements and it is a very thorough one.
The play imagines Hattie McDaniel (Capathia Jenkins) at the end of her life, slowly and painfully dying of breast cancer in the Motion Picture Hospital. Heavily medicated, she hallucinates a visit from Walter White, the president of the NAACP, a man who attacked McDaniel both professionally and personally for the roles she played. Presented with an opportunity, she proceeds to tell her story and tell him off.
Sorkin’s play does an excellent job of presenting the broad sweep of McDaniel’s life, following her career from its beginnings, weaving in her problem marriages, anecdotes about Hollywood stars she knew, and her troubles with the NAACP. It is this very thoroughness that occasionally makes the play seem as though it were written with a school assembly in mind, rather than a theatre audience. Fortunately, when Sorkin’s work begins to sound like a history lesson, Capathia Jenkins grabs the audience by the lapels and demands attention. Jenkins’ Hattie is a formidable woman; one who will not be dismissed by racists, Walter White, or even the cancer that will eventually kill her. Regretfully, although (mis)Understanding Mammy is billed as a play with music, there is too little singing, and Jenkins magnificent and powerful voice is underutilized. However, when she does sing, prepare to be amazed.
Those people walking into the show with only a passing familiarity with Hattie McDaniel’s work will leave with a detailed picture of a woman who worked hard to get what she wanted out of life and succeeded despite personal and professional hurdles. And they will most certainly be entertained along the way.
Copyright 2007 Byrne Harrison
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