(mis)Understanding Mammy: The Hattie McDaniel Story
nytheatre.com review by Lisa Ferber
February 10, 2007
Seconds after Capathia Jenkins delivered her last line as Hattie McDaniel in Joan Ross Sorkin's (Mis)Understanding Mammy, people were rising to their feet to applaud her dedicated, honest, compassionate, respectful, and lovable portrayal of a woman whose greatest success also led to her greatest difficulty.
The premise of this play is Hattie McDaniel talking to an unseen, unheard Walter White, executive director of the NAACP, as she is in her hospital room in the 1950s, suffering from breast cancer. The show focuses on her defense of her Mammy role, but we also learn about her various failed marriages and burning desire to have a child.
Hattie McDaniel, like many black actresses in the first half of the last century, spent much of her career playing maids and cooks. She was the first black woman to win an Academy Award, for one of those roles, strong-willed Mammy in Gone with the Wind. Although Mammy was a character played with much dignity, McDaniel suffered at the hands of White, who staged protests outside theaters showing Gone with the Wind, his criticism reaching wide enough to result in a letter from a black soldier that McDaniel (in this show) claims hurt her more than any other public response.
This is a play with songs, and my one regret is that there aren't more of them, as Jenkins has the kind of rich, earnest, bluesy, life-affirming voice that makes a person want more. She sings a few partial songs and a few full ones, and each time those sounds fill the room, the audience is getting a treat.
Sorkin's script accomplishes the remarkable feat of conveying history without being didactic. From the start it's an unrealistic premise, where a person gets to finally tell off someone who has hounded them throughout life, so the whole thing could have come off like a lesson. And the beauty is it's anything but. The story remains interesting throughout, and Sorkin peppers the reminiscences with little jokes here and there to keep things from getting too heavy, in what is of course a serious situation.
We learn in this show how the actions of the NAACP in some ways had a negative effect on the careers of such actresses as McDaniel, in that toward the later 1940s, roles for black actors were on the decline as studios were less likely to write any roles that might draw criticism. (Of course, they could have just written regular-folk non-servant roles...but nobody asked me.)
Jenkins's performance conveys a wonderful humility and strength—she really is a one-woman show. She's blessed with a natural cuteness and playfulness, making her endearing as well as admirably strong. She is powerful and sincere and instantly likable. Something tells me more standing ovations are in store for this performer in this show and others.