Saturday, July 29, 2023

Hattie McDaniel: Always in the picture

The question, "Who gets to tell your story?" receives an emphatic answer in Joan Ross Sorkin's play with music "misUnderstanding Mammy: The Hattie McDaniel Story," starring Tina Fabrique and directed by Seret Scott, being performed at the Schoolhouse Theater in Croton Falls, N.Y. through July 30. 

McDaniel, an accomplished actress and singer, was the first African American actor to win an Academy Award. In 1939, she took home the prize for Best Supporting Actress for her performance as Mammy in "Gone with the Wind."

In this one-woman play, which debuted in 2007, McDaniel literally takes center stage to celebrate her "firsts" (the Oscar wasn't the only one), relate her many-sided entertainment career, answer those who criticized the cook and maid's roles she played (especially the NAACP's Walter White) and stake her claim to being not just a survivor but a star in Hollywood and American society.

Hattie McDaniel receives the 1940 Academy 
Award for Best Supporting Actress
The play is Schoolhouse Theater's second post-pandemic show (following the play "Red" last spring), and there's still a palpable sense of joy among the house staff that live theater is back.

Not that the path to "misUnderstanding Mammy" was smooth. Artistic Director Owen Thompson announced before the show that the originally-contracted star had to bow out due to health issues (it was Myra Lucretia Taylor). Fabrique agreed to take on the 80-minute role with two weeks' notice, so the audience shouldn't be surprised if "a script magically appeared," Thompson said. 

We see McDaniel near the end of her life, coping with breast cancer and wearing a lavender robe, in a room in the Motion Picture House in Los Angeles. She's obsessed by the post-WWII campaign that the NAACP's White launched against "mammyism" -- stereotypical depictions of grinning servants rather than fully-rounded characters in a variety of roles -- and against her personally.

Ruminating about her life and seeing White in her mind, she addresses him, noting that she is the "first colored patient" at the Motion Picture hospital. 

Hattie McDaniel as Mammy in
"Gone With the Wind"
Fabrique powerfully brings McDaniel to life, forcefully expressing her bitterness at what she sees as unfair criticism and lack of respect for her many talents. Born in Denver in 1893, she was the youngest of 13 children to parents who were formerly enslaved. "I sang everywhere," McDaniel says in the play, and Fabrique, with a fine gospel/blues voice, demonstrates McDaniel's talent as a songwriter as well as a singer. 

She performed in her father's minstrel show and other touring ensembles. In the 1920s, a new radio station debuted in Denver, and she recalls that "I was the first Negro woman to sing on the radio." Nothing kept her down for long. Stranded in Milwaukee by the Great Depression, she worked as a washroom attendant at a nightclub, but her talent could not be repressed and eventually she became a regular singer at the club.

However, more opportunity beckoned westward. "I arrived in Los Angeles with $20," and found her way to radio again, performing as "Hi-Hat Hattie," a bossy maid character. When radio work flagged, she worked as a maid. Gradually, she won parts in films, appearing opposite Mae West, Will Rogers and Jean Harlow. Look up the dinner scene in "Alice Adams," with Katharine Hepburn. McDaniel plays a maid who really couldn't care less and steals the scene. 

She was making very good money (the legend is she once said she'd rather make $700 a week playing a maid than $7 a week being one) when she auditioned for "Gone With the Wind," as she says, "dressed as Mammy."

She made $450 a week for "GWTW," in 1939, when a loaf of bread cost eight cents. "I was paid to act. Did you think I had control?" she asks, sharply pointing out that she took what she could get. "I was making those parts funny, honest, not demeaning ... I fought for our people, lifting them up to the silver screen," she protests.

She's clear-eyed about colorism as a heavyset, dark-skinned black woman. The implication is that she wasn't about to get the parts that went to Lena Horne or Dorothy Dandridge, light-skinned and glamorous. "I'm black as Africa and proud of it!" McDaniel declares, then needles Walter White for his name, his light skin and his white wife.   

Racism, as always, entered her career. The "GWTW" black actors were not allowed to attend the all-white Atlanta premiere of the film. It's not in the play, but the story is that Clark Gable threated to boycott the premiere, but McDaniel convinced him to go. In the play, she says disdainfully, "I said I was otherwise committed."
She did attend the Hollywood premiere and, of course, the Oscar ceremony, but was seated at a separate table with her black escort and white agent. 

If you doubt Hattie McDaniel's acting prowess or why she received that Oscar, just look at this scene from "Gone with the Wind":

Hattie McDaniel as Mammy tells Melanie
of Rhett's distress at the death of his child
Tina Fabrique is always riveting as Hattie, even with a script in her hand, leaving me to wish that she'd had the time to memorize the part and bring even more nuance to it. No matter, Seret Scott directs with a sure hand, keeping Fabrique's movement about the bedroom set interesting, whether she is reminiscing, excoriating Walter White or addressing us, her audience, both in the 1930s and now. 

By the way, McDaniel went on to star in the early 1950s in a popular TV show, "Beulah," where she played a maid yet again, but as always, she stole her scenes. When she died, five thousand people attended the church service and the funeral procession consisted of 125 limousines. Many of her Hollywood friends attended.

McDaniel was barred from her first choice of cemetery, Hollywood Cemetery, due to her race, and was buried at Rosedale Cemetery in Los Angeles. In 1999, Hollywood Cemetery erected a memorial to her. 

If you can, you should make Hattie McDaniel's acquaintance in this play.  






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