There's no question: Larry Parr's script for Hi-Hat Hattie is two-dimensional and sentimental, open to all the shortcomings of the form -- a one-woman show that tells the story of a famed historical figure. You can be sure the subject will be prettied up, and any nastiness or meanness in her character eliminated. She'll reveal the proper amount of spunk and the proper amount of pathos. But Hi-Hat Hattie confers several pleasures nonetheless.
The play tells the story of Hattie McDaniel, the irrepressible character actress of the 1930s and '40s who voiced the lines of Aunt Jemima for radio pancake commercials and won an Oscar -- the first African-American ever to do so -- for her portrayal of Mammy in Gone With the Wind. As the play opens, Hattie, who was born in Denver, has returned to the city's empty Orpheum Theatre to sort out her memories. The walls are lined with posters depicting her career. The daughter of former slaves and the youngest of thirteen children, Hattie began her performing career in an attempt to gain her exhausted mother's attention and approval. There's a funny, touching scene in the show when the young Hattie recites a dreadful exemplary poem about Convict Joe, brought to his knees by drink.
Embodied by the luminous Sheryl Renee, Hattie tells her story: early successes, alternating with jobs doing laundry or tending the ladies' room; a role in Show Boat opposite the legendary Paul Robeson; glittering parties thrown for such friends as Bette Davis, Clark Gable, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh -- not one of whom spoke up for her when she was forced to miss the premiere of Gone With the Wind in Atlanta because she wasn't allowed into the theater.
A more devastating betrayal awaited her, however. Walter White, the head of the NAACP, began attacking the way black people were portrayed in Hollywood, along with the actors who played those roles, and Hattie McDaniel was chief among them. In pursuit of his laudable cause, he ignored the fact that such roles were the only jobs available to talented black artists. Hattie herself, as she tells us in the play, had sought to make her characters human and three-dimensional. For her, Aunt Jemima was not a stereotype, but a tribute to her own mother and grandmother. When, she wants to know, did such images become humiliating? And what did it say about her if her very presence on a stage or screen degraded her own people?
After the NAACP attacks, jobs for black actors dried up. In a typically sentimental scene in Hi-Hat Hattie, McDaniel is shown pulling herself back from the brink of suicide to sing "I Wish I Could Know How It Feels to Be Free."
Still, Sheryl Renee makes it all work. My guess is that, even padded, she's far more glamorous than Hattie McDaniel herself was. She's a fine actress who exudes warmth and draws us into the action, and she's an amazing vocalist: Her voice can emanate from the depths or soar almost operatically high. There's also the sophistication of her diction and phrasing. She's hilarious when she sings a duet called "Ah Still Suits Me" with an imaginary Paul Robeson, alternating voices and donning and doffing a man's hat. At one point, Renee sings "Can't Help Loving That Man of Mine" as Hattie must have sung it in Show Boat -- gleaming smile, "dat" for "that," using that odd, metallic head voice of the 1930s. A tragedy occurs, and she sings the reprise over the body of her murdered husband. How different it sounds: Now the song is hushed and shadowed and silken.
Above all, it's the songs, an interesting mix of blues, funk and musical comedy, that keep Hi-Hat Hattie afloat: "Danny Boy," "St. Louis Blues," "Birth of the Blues," "Kitchen Man." It's wonderful to hear "Danny Boy" -- which conveys the yearning of another exiled people altogether -- given Renee's haunting, blues-inflected rendition. Best of all, the actress's supple voice appears to be unmiked. At the piano, Bob Schlesinger provides skilled, empathetic accompaniment.
The first act works better than the second, simply because it contains more songs. Without the leavening supplied by music, the script's weakness becomes far more apparent. Still, Hi-Hat Hattie is well worth a visit, for Sheryl Renee's performance and for the felt sense of history it communicates.
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