Hattie McDaniel (Gabrielle Lott-Rogers) stands left in front of a bar, in a vibrant blue gown, with a gardenia in her hair. Dottie (Mildred Marie Langford) stands right behind the bar, wearing a black-and-white maid's outfit. She is looking at a piece of paper containing a thank-you speech for the Oscars that the studio wrote for McDaniel.
Gabrielle Lott-Rogers (left) and Mildred Marie Langford in Boulevard of Bold Dreams at TimeLine Theatre Credit: Joel Maisonet

This past fall, TimeLine offered a blistering revival of Alice Childress’s Trouble in Mind, in which a Black actress in a 1950s Broadway play about lynching (penned and directed by white men, naturally) takes a stand against the insulting stereotypes in the script and the microaggressions in the rehearsal room. They’ve followed that up with what feels like a natural progression—even if the story takes place around 15 years earlier.

In Boulevard of Bold Dreams, playwright LaDarrion Williams imagines an encounter two Black employees at the Ambassador Hotel have on February 29, 1940, with Hattie McDaniel. It’s the night of the Academy Awards, held in the hotel’s Cocoanut Grove nightclub. McDaniel (Gabrielle Lott-Rogers) is the odds-on favorite to make history and win the Oscar as best supporting actress for playing Mammy in Gone With the Wind—which would make her the first Black performer to take home the golden man. But she’s not allowed to sit with the rest of the cast, because the Cocoanut Grove is segregated. The best they’ll do for her is provide a small table at the back of the bus, er, room, where she can sit with her companion. 

Boulevard of Bold Dreams
Through 3/19: Wed-Thu 7:30 PM, Fri 8 PM, Sat 4 and 8 PM, Sun 2 PM; distanced performance Wed 3/1, open captions Fri 3/10 and Sat 3/11 4 PM, audio description Fri 3/17; TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington, 773-281-8463, ext. 6, timelinetheatre.com, $42-$57 (students 35 percent off with valid ID; $25 tickets to U.S. military personnel, veterans, first responders, and their spouses and family)

McDaniel isn’t just facing white supremacy within her industry. She’s also facing criticism for taking the role of Mammy in the first place from civil rights organizations, such as the NAACP, and some members of the Black press. William L. Patterson, reviewing GWTW in the Chicago Defender, called it “a weapon of terror against black America.”

He wasn’t wrong. (McDaniel wasn’t allowed to attend the film’s Atlanta premiere at all, so by comparison, the Academy is being “generous” in its accommodations.) But what Williams’s play, directed in its world premiere here by Malkia Stampley, accomplishes (sometimes a little too neatly) is to dissect the ways in which a performer like McDaniel has to negotiate between surviving in the industry and keeping her dignity and her soul. 

Those are lessons that also unfold over the 100-minute course of the play for aspiring director/bartender Arthur (Charles Andrew Gardner) and his best friend and sounding board Dottie (Mildred Marie Langford), who came to Hollywood with him from their small town in Alabama. Dottie is a singer and actress, but her job as a maid at the Ambassador and the double whammy of sexual and racial harassment seems to have killed her dreams. Arthur, though, is still holding fast to the goal of directing his own film and is waiting for a call from someone who’s promised to sell him the equipment to help make that happen.

It’s a taut and absorbing show for the most part, punctuated with some stellar fireworks, particularly between Langford’s Dottie and Lott-Rogers’s Hattie. And yes, the latter does utter one of the classic lines often attributed to McDaniel: “I’d rather play a maid than be one,” which of course hits harder when she says it to another Black woman who actually is a maid. Ryan Emens’s cozy set captures the feeling of both a temporary sanctuary for McDaniel (who comes in while the bar is closed, saying “I won’t be no trouble to nobody”) and a private club where the three characters can speak freely of their creative passions and personal pain in ways they can’t in front of the white hotel guests and Hollywood bigwigs.

Williams himself is a son of Alabama who wrote this play while living in his car. (He and Stampley also collaborated on a couple of original songs we hear in the show.) Boulevard of Bold Dreams taps into both the larger-than-life visions offered on the silver screen, and an astringent view of what it takes to get up there without losing everything that makes you who you are in the first place. By the time we see a video montage (created by Rasean Davonté Johnson) of all the Black women who followed McDaniel into the Oscar spotlight, it’s easy to feel both fresh appreciation for McDaniel’s achievement and sorrowful anger for those who were denied even the limited opportunities she received.