Hattie McDaniel’s Oscar win for “Gone With the Wind” made her the first black actor to take the award, an achievement that anchors her legacy as a trailblazer. Of course, there was more to her life than assisting Miss Scarlett, and Joan Ross Sorkin aims to construct a theatrical biography with “(mis)Understanding Mammy: The Hattie McDaniel Story.” But while it brims with interesting trivia and allows Capathia Jenkins to shine in the title role, the play makes dubious use of history.
Set in McDaniel’s nursing home in October 1952 — the month she died of breast cancer — the solo show is framed as a woman’s final chance to speak her troubled mind. She imagines she sees the ghost of Walter White, the NAACP exec who accused her of degrading black people by playing mammies, and proceeds to tell him her life story.
The set-up occasionally creates dramatic tension, especially when Hattie rages at White for criticizing her struggle to succeed in the Caucasian worlds of film and radio.
Best known for musical theater (“Caroline, or Change,” “Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me”), Jenkins ably commands the stage when her character falls apart. In a climactic scene, she rips off McDaniel’s confident showmanship to reveal a woman terrified that she failed to uplift her race with her work. The thesp’s vulnerability is stirring.
After this scene, however, comes a coda presenting McDaniel as a flawless heroine and White as a self-loathing Uncle Tom. Near death, Hattie says, “I’m as black as Africa and proud of it. But you, Walter, you enjoyed being white just a little too much. You’d rather be white full-time, wouldn’t you? Is that why you divorced your black wife of 27 years and married a white woman?”
White is reduced to pure villainy. Sorkin attacks him with the same hostile stereotyping that he supposedly inflicted on McDaniel when he called her the prime agent of “mammyism.” But that portrayal fits the scribe’s agenda. Despite its title, the drama’s real purpose is comparing a supposedly ideal form of black life with a faulty one.
The ideal is Hattie, stripped of all faults so she can become a symbol of how to live with respect and dignity. Sorkin conveniently omits details that might complicate our embrace of the character, like McDaniel’s reported affair with Tallulah Bankhead. And even Hattie’s troubled moments — like her imagined pregnancy — are spun as another chance to triumph over adversity with integrity intact.
White’s presence in the play, even if it’s invisible, represents the flawed black life that will happily beg for white approval.
But auds with even a passing familiarity with the real White and McDaniel will know how wildly Sorkin must contort their lives to make them into Good Hattie and Bad Walter. The play is far too manipulative and facile to advance a compelling argument.
At least Jenkins is at the center of this quagmire. Her perf is nearly strong enough to excuse the writing, and given a better project, she could gain a fierce reputation for drama.