Reviewed by Jessica Freeman-Slade
(Credit: Amy Gordon)
In the middle of Aunt Jemima’s patter, the truths that go unspoken speak volumes.
There is one moment in The Mammy Project, Michelle Matlock’s one-woman take on one of the most insidious stereotypes in African-American history, that truly stuns the audience into silence. Wearing an aw-shucks grin and adopting a Dixie lilt, Matlock plays the part of an auctioneer offering up a slave to the highest bidder. “She can live on dandelions, too if you like. Healthy body, healthy mind, this gentle giant Nubian will be your prize-chocolate milk on tap for the young’uns!” Then Matlock steps up on the block, and breaks into that bright, white smile. With her eyes stretched open and her mouth fixed in a gruesome grin, you can no longer hide behind the auctioneer’s flashy sales pitch. The difference between what we’re told to see and what we actually see is painful to witness.
In telling the story of Nancy Green, the first African-American woman to play the part of “Aunt Jemima,” Matlock exposes the ugliness of a stereotype by humanizing its portrayer. Unlike her counterparts of Dandy and Jim Crow, which first gained prominence through minstrel shows, Mammy wasn’t a popular icon until Green first portrayed her at the 1893 World’s Fair. Matlock takes us from her first audition through the first “Negro” day at the fair, fluctuating between the dialogue of her Aunt Jemima patter (“Befo da war oh Befo da wah back on the plantation. Dem was the good old days”) and her struggles as an African-American actress in the face of the Aunt Jemima image. “I’m thinking about all the women that came before me…Louise Beavers, Nell Carter, Whoopi Goldberg…I believed they had paved the way for me. I thought that because of their struggles and their success that America finally got it.” We would like to put the Mammy portrait in the past, to imagine that Aunt Jemima is dead and gone: after all, the new image on the box resembles Claire Huxtable more than Hattie McDaniels. But still her ghost looms large, larger than Nancy Green had ever imagined.
In Matlock’s nuanced and lively investigation of this little known figure in African-American history, the Mammy becomes more than a broad sketch of passive black domesticity. In the middle of Aunt Jemima’s patter, the truths that go unspoken speak volumes.
The Mammy Project runs through February 10th at the American Theatre of Actors. Performances are Fridays at 10:30pm, Saturday and Sundays at 1:00pm, and Mondays at 8:00pm. All tickets are $18.00. To order tickets, call the box office at 212-352-3101, or go to www.theatermania.com. Reservations may also be made at 212-696-6699.
According to Lincoln Center's new LCT3 project at its slogan, it takes "New Audiences for New Artists." It also takes new critics, hence the establishment of Theater Talk's New Theater Corps in 2005, a way for up-and-coming theater writers and eager new theatergoers to get exposure to the ever-growing theater scene in New York City. Writers for the New Theater Corps are given the opportunity to immerse themselves in the off-off and off-Broadway theater scene, learning and giving back high-quality reviews at the same time. Driven by a passion and love of the arts, the New Theater Corps aims to identify, support, and grow the arts community, one show and one person at a time.