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Paulanne Simmons

Hattie McDaniel Tells Her Story


''(mis)Understanding Mammy: The Hattie McDaniel Story''
Directed by David Glenn Armstrong
Emerging Artists Theatre
311 West 43rd St., 5th Floor
Opened Feb. 7, 2007
Wed. 2 p.m., Fri. 7 p.m., Sat. 2 p.m., Sun. 5 p.m.
$40 (212) 247- 2429
Closes March 4, 2007
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons Feb. 11, 2007

Hattie McDaniel is best remembered for playing Mammy in ''Gone with the Wind.'' The Academy Award she won for her performance was the first ever given to an African American. But it came with strings attached: the enmity of NAACP's Walter White, who targeted McDaniel as a symbol of ''Mammyism,'' the degradation of Negroes through servile dramatic roles.

McDaniel, who was mostly cast as a maid or a cook, sometimes supported herself as a domestic when she wasn't acting. Having been a maid on and off screen, McDaniel famously said that she'd rather play a maid than be a maid. White was not sympathetic.

''(mis)Understanding Mammy: The Hattie McDaniel Story,'' part of Emerging Artists Theatre's second annual Triple Threat, is a one-woman show written by Joan Ross Sorkin and performed by Broadway star Capathia Jenkins. It is skillfully directed by David Glenn Armstrong.

Set in 1952, when McDaniel, battling breast cancer, is living at the Motion Picture Country Home and Hospital in Woodland Hills, California, the show explores the painful contradictions that plagued McDaniel's life.

Wracked with pain, a little disoriented, McDaniel imagines that White has come to visit her. She makes him sit in a chair while he listens to her side of the story, beginning with her first performances as a singer and ending with her Hollywood career.

Jenkins, who is capable of both depth and buoyancy, makes a compelling case that McDaniel has indeed been ''a credit to her race.'' And she does this with humor, warmth and the occasional song thrown into the mix. But at times she gets bogged down by Sorkin's overly emphatic script.

Much of McDaniel's harangue is devoted to explaining how she didn't pick the roles; they picked her. For most African Americans in the 30s and 40s the choice was either to play a domestic or not to work in Hollywood. If White didn't know this, certainly everyone today does. But Sorkin seems to think this is a point that has to be made again and again.

Finally, McDaniel accuses White of more than merely being insensitive. She tells him he's self-serving and self-hating. All of this may be true, but Sorkin's play would have been far more interesting if she had let White tell his side of the story too.

A bigger problem, however, is that by choosing to present McDaniel's life through the prism of ''Mammyism,'' Sorkin doesn't leave herself much room for illuminating other aspects of her McDaniel's life; her several unsuccessful marriages, her inability to have children are barely touched on.

''(mis)Understanding Mammy'' is sometimes much too didactic and sure of itself. McDaniel is so busy defending her actions she never asks whether she could have done things differently. And without ambiguity, drama suffers.

But despite its flaws, ''(mis)Understanding Mammy'' is a provocative and gripping show. Jenkins' fine voice is always a treat to hear when lifted in song. What's more, she has a visceral understanding of McDaniel and isn't afraid to venture into painful territory. We shouldn't be afraid to follow.


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