Body Politic Theatre

She was the first black person to win an Oscar. Hell, she was probably the first black person to attend an Oscar ceremony–except for the food servers, of course. With that and other accomplishments, Hattie McDaniel won a special place in the history of her race and her country. As Hi-Hat Hattie!, Larry Parr’s one-woman play about her life, makes clear, McDaniel had not only talent but luck–she was the right person in the right place at the right time. Born in 1895, she was raised in Denver, in a social atmosphere fairly (though not completely) free of racial hostility; her father, an ex-slave, was both a minister and a minstrel-show entertainer, so music was a fundamental part of her life. She grew up watching silent movies and yearned to be a film actress. She probably wouldn’t have fulfilled that ambition if she had been born even a decade earlier than she was, because silents used mostly white actors in blackface for black roles. But when talkies came along, there was a place for a black woman with a great singing voice.

Of course, that place wasn’t at the big table. Blacks were relegated almost exclusively to servile roles onscreen as well as off in the 1920s and ’30s, and McDaniel was no exception. She had an impressive career in terms of the quantity of films she was featured in, and some of those films were quite notable: I’m No Angel (“Beulah,” Mae West said to McDaniel, “peel me a grape”), Show Boat, Alice Adams, Nothing Sacred, The Male Animal, and of course Gone With the Wind, for which she won an Oscar. But for the most part her roles in those films were nothing to brag about–at least not as written. McDaniel’s accomplishment was to take the menial characters given her and make them rich, sometimes profoundly moving, and generally very funny.

To do that she used her obvious endowments–her lush, resonant voice and her unforgettably expansive girth. But she also drew on an inner fire and an emotionally complex temperament. It wasn’t just the timing of her lines or the marvelously focused way she pitched her voice and rolled her eyes that made McDaniel’s screen performances so enduring; it was the deeply rooted core of turbulent feeling permeating her characterizations that lifted her above the ranks of plump black movie maids.

The sense of volatility that made Hattie McDaniel special is annoyingly absent in Hi-Hat Hattie!, as it’s written and as it’s played. This fairly bland play has a purpose–to instruct and inspire–and it accomplishes that quite successfully. But the feisty, mercurial, interesting woman Hattie McDaniel is lost in the process.

Part of the problem is Sulanya Conway’s performance as Hattie. Conway’s a terrific blues and gospel singer–and the play wisely emphasizes her vocal strength, allowing her to perform (with Dan Stetzel’s yeomanlike piano accompaniment) some crowd-pleasing, highly theatrical renditions of such classics as “St. Louis Blues,” “Danny Boy” (sung after the man she loves is murdered in a gambling brawl), “Amazing Grace” (in which she evolves from a nervous, fidgeting child to a confident adolescent), “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” the ribald, sexual-pun-filled blues number “The Kitchen Man,” and–by far the play’s liveliest moment–“Ah Still Suits Me,” the duet McDaniel and Paul Robeson sang in the film Show Boat, with Conway energetically handling both parts.

But despite her strong singing and her physical rightness for the role, Conway’s McDaniel is shallow, goody-goody, and unconvincing. She’s a role model, not a person. And not an actress; her cutesy reenactments of famous moments from Gone With the Wind (the marvelous scene when Mammy, shyly and coquettishly, displays for Rhett the red petticoat he has bought her) are completely devoid of the intensity and conflict that marked McDaniel’s brilliant performance.

The inadequacies of Conway’s performance seem to me due less to her own limitations (she was, after all, a feisty and flashy Bessie Smith in The Little Dreamer) than to Albert Pertalion’s superficial direction and novice playwright Parr’s bland, pop-up-history-book script, which gives us an African American variation on the standard show-biz bio. A talented, ambitious woman who doesn’t meet standard expectations of physical attractiveness overcomes prejudice to achieve fame and fortune; along the way she endures heartbreak when she falls in love with a gamblin’ man. This might as well be Funny Girl.

Of course, there’s an added element here–the history and legacy of racial injustice and prejudice in America. Hi-Hat Hattie! has plenty of educational merit as a theatrical textbook on racism and how McDaniel dealt with its expression in acts of overt hatred (a cross is burned on the lawn of the nice new home she buys to celebrate her success) and in instances of covert inaction (she refuses to attend the premiere of Gone With the Wind in segregated Atlanta and is stung when her fellow actors don’t do likewise).

The play also deals with the attacks on McDaniel by other blacks for her willingness to play maids and mammies, even given the irony she brought to those roles. Walter White of the NAACP accused McDaniel (as well as Stepin Fetchit, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, and others) of perpetuating the “grinning darky stereotype.” McDaniel responds that the irony and compassion she brought to those roles undermined their offensiveness–and besides, it was better to play a maid for $700 a week than to be a maid for $7 a week.

In light of this, it’s interesting to note Hi-Hat Hattie!’s important but incomplete mention of another black performer of the time: Paul Robeson, opposite whom McDaniel played in Show Boat on stage and screen. Show Boat was something of a ground breaker in its time for employing blacks to play blacks–another case of McDaniel’s fate or fortune creating a breakthrough role for her. Yet Queenie and Joe, the riverboat-servant characters that McDaniel and Robeson played, are well-written but thoroughly stereotyped caricatures–the lazy black man and his loudmouthed woman. (“Mah man is shif’less / An’ good for nuthin’ too. . . . He’s never round here / When dere is work to do,” sings Queenie in the famous song “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.”) In the mid-1940s, when the steadily employed McDaniel was enduring Walter White’s criticisms, Robeson had disowned the underclass characters he had played early in his career and was coming under intense government pressure for his espousals of racial and economic justice. With that in mind, it’s hard to feel much sympathy for McDaniel when she complains of being attacked unfairly. And it’s hard to share her happiness at the popularity of Beulah, her radio and TV series of 1948 to 1952, in which she played, you got it, a maid. It was right around this time that Robeson was being smeared in Congress and prevented from earning a living by the U.S. government. Yet all Hi-Hat Hattie!’s McDaniel tells us about Robeson is that he was big and handsome.

Oh well. So Hi-Hat Hattie! doesn’t ask the hard questions. The audience eats it up with a spoon–mainly because of Conway’s spectacular singing. And, like I said, it’s inspirational. And educational. “Was that a true story?” a little black boy asked his mother after the Sunday matinee show I attended last week. As far as it goes, it is. And as role models go, one could do a whole lot worse than Oscar-winning Hattie McDaniel.