Part of the Triple Threat Series at Emerging Artists Theatre
With her relentless and infectious grin, Capathia Jenkins embodies Hattie McDaniel in (mis) Understanding Mammy, a brief, biological, one-woman romp chock full of song, dance and pride in portraying the nursemaid stereotype. While Jenkins' ability to entertain and strive for emotional range is undeniable, she stammers through her monologues and appears uneasy when she tackles delusion.
Reviewed By Cindy Pierre
Mammy's a hot commodity these days. While Michelle Matlock takes us through her historical origin in an effort to obliterate her in The Mammy Project, Capathia Jenkins is Hattie McDaniel incarnate in (mis) Understanding Mammy: The Hattie McDaniel Story. Penned by playwright Joan Ross Sorkin, this one-woman show is a fictitious account of Hattie's last hallucinatory encounter with Walter White, civil rights leader and former chief executive of the NAACP (1929-1955) while dying of cancer at The Motion Picture Country Home and Hospital in Woodland Hills, California. Walter White launched an anti-mammy and other black stereotype campaign that slew the careers of all black actors in its path. His appetite was particularly voracious for Hattie McDaniel, the first black actor to win an Academy Award, for portraying mammy, a cliche that he deemed particularly vile in glorifying slavery.
Hattie McDaniel, former maid and washerwoman even in the midst of rising to film and radio stardom, had a different position on Mammy. Having experience as a maid, she understood that role intuitively, and knew that mammy was much more than the docile, obedient and fearful maid that writers consistently depicted her as. Hattie believed that she was a credit to her race, and aimed to bring power, sass, and independence to her assigned roles. And assigned they were. As the options for roles back in the '30s and '40s were sparse, Hattie always maintained that she'd "rather play a maid than be one", and did so in succession, credited and uncredited, for years. Though her life was hard, she aimed to transcend her lot, or rather, the negro lot, and bring realism, a firm grip on her black roots, entertainment, and overall actor's integrity to her roles.
But Walter White would not acknowledge her perspective on the black plight. Instead, he re-doubled his efforts whenever a black actor received acclaim, and spoke vehemently against Hollywood for the "liver-lipped, uncle tom, grinning darkies" that they produced. Labeled as "1/8 black", White was an enigma to Hattie and a hindrance to the progress of his people, perhaps because he had no concept of their struggle (he was so fair that it was difficult to trace his african ancestry). As Hattie, it is this persecution that fuels Capathia Jenkins, either to lash out in embitterment or resort to song to pacify her afflicted spirit. And unfortunately, only those two speeds with a smattering of nuance in between, define her performance.
Capathia, in a simple hospital room setting, is larger than life on Theater 5's small stage. The intimate space allows the rich timbre and smokiness of her jazzy voice to wash over the audience in captivating waves. A jubilant performer, Capathia belongs on a grander stage with an even grander production. She seems claustrophobic in a space that cannot contain her, and her power is tamed to accommodate it. When she revels in Hattie's oscar-winning status, the moments lack drama, but she is only partially to blame. The production should be more grandiose, with more music and sound effects to support her suggested sentiments. More comfortable in the skin of a singer than an actress, Capathia seems lost and inconsistent in Hattie's delusions. She seems to lose focus of Walter as her audience, and the direction by David Glenn Armstrong to have her shake and dramatically toss the chair in which he is "seated" cuts through the audience's belief that she is delusional. Walter's presence troubles Capathia, and eliminating him in physical form, per se, would not have diminished the show's intent. Sorkin could have tried a different approach, such as having Hattie address Walter without directly speaking to him. Otherwise, Capathia communicates physical pain well, drawing us into her cancer-riddled world as she pants, shuffles, shudders, and grimaces through her expressions of rage. Although not technically precise, her impersonations of well-known personalities such as Bing Crosby were light-hearted and amusing. And although her smile was brilliant, there were instances where I had trouble finding both her pain and joy credible, as she fluctuated frequently from a five-star grin to a starless frown.
Although modest in certain respects, (mis) Understanding Mammy's production is not without hubris. In one instance, the applause of the audience after a musical number is incorporated into the drama, as Hattie's response follows suit. I loved the manner in which this moment was conceived, demonstrating full confidence in Capathia's abilities as a performer and adding an interactive element to the piece. It made me wonder if an alternate retort was not scripted in the event that Capathia did not bring the house down. Though too much personal and professional history may have been crammed into an hour and a half, it was nice to see a different side to her persona. No matter how mammy is perceived, Hattie McDaniel did, in fact, "break the color barrier", and her celebrity was far more extraordinary than Walter White allowed. This piece may be the commendation that she was robbed of in her time.
From Feb. 7-Mar. 4. Theater 5. 311 W. 43rd St. New York, NY 10036
Ticket Price: $40; $20 students Ticket Information: Box Office: 212-247-2429; http://www.eatheatre.org