The Ensemble Theatre's Hi-Hat Hattie: Highly Entertaining

The Ensemble Theatre's Hi-Hat Hattie: Highly Entertaining
Courtesy Ensemble Theatre

The set-up:

"I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry," said Hattie McDaniel as part of her acceptance speech in 1940 when she won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her iconic portrait of Mammy in Gone With the Wind. We gag at the sentiment -- as if any white person had ever needed to hope to be a credit to their race -- but when we realize that the words were written by the publicity flacks at Louis B. Mayer's MGM, who distributed the epic, and were not McDaniel's words, the reflex lessens.

McDaniel was the first African-American to win Hollywood's most prestigious prize; she was the first ever to be nominated. At least Hollywood allowed her to attend the awards dinner; she was barred from the Atlanta world premiere, since she couldn't enter Lowe's Grand Theater, which was whites-only.

Her steady career, somewhat meteoric, was highly successful, and she became Hollywood's most famous black actress. If she only played domestics and cooks, those were the only roles opened to her. Her name in the credits always signaled a knowing, sassy gal who brooked no nonsense from anyone, white or black. She dissed equally Marlene Dietrich, Mae West, Claudette Colbert, Irene Dunne, Paul Robeson, Clark Gable and Katherine Hepburn. McDaniel's famous quote says everything about the norms of the '30s: "Honey, I'd rather play a maid than be one."

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At times, to make ends meet before her film career took off, she actually worked as a maid, a waitress and a laundress. Working backward, after years in Hollywood and more than 300 movies, she was a singer (the first black singer ever heard on radio, to be exact), songwriter, dancer, vaudeville headliner, radio personality, minstrel performer, school cutup. She was a first in many ways, and always unique.

Would that Larry Parr's two-person musical tribute, highly entertaining as it is in the Ensemble Theatre's intimate production, was half as dramatic as McDaniel's own life.

The execution:

Shaunyce Omar brings the monumental McDaniel right into our laps. A mesmerizing performer and a highly versatile singer with a volcanic low register that could etch steel, she's as definitive as we're likely to find, since legendary screen stars are fairly incapable of duplication. She has McDaniel's girth, merriment, solid goodwill and natural morality.

McDaniel breezed through her roles, as others did not, because she seemed so normal. Even when playing a maid, her character was smart and knew right from wrong, and was always one step, if not two, ahead of anyone in her scenes. She could lecture Scarlett, and then let loose a deep, rich laugh that sent out a sexy reverb. Her race wasn't an issue. She was the equal of her employers, feisty and calm. It was her particular human touch that directors and writers wanted, and she created worlds within her characters.

In the '40s, the NAACP launched a campaign against black stereotypes that Hollywood perpetrated, and McDaniel with her panoply of domestics was targeted. The organization's leader called her out, and her career and psyche suffered a dry spell. While somewhat merited -- the racial stereotypes perpetrated by Hollywood were never exemplary -- the campaign overplayed its hand and demanded bizarre rules that included straightened hair and lightened complexions. McDaniel survived the blitz, but it would be after WW II when barriers in film came down. Sporadic film work steered her back to her first love, radio, and from 1947 to 1952 she successfully starred in sitcom Beulah, thereby earning McDaniel effusive praise from the NAACP for her pioneering work as the first black woman radio star.

Most of this fascinating history is glossed over by Parr, or compressed into a song or two, while Omar keeps heading for the whiskey bottle. History takes a licking throughout, but the show proceeds steadily thanks to Omar's bright friendliness and DuWayne Davis's fancy piano playing, which keeps all the songs bouncy, jazzy and delightfully listenable.

Some peculiar glitches: McDaniel's first husband was named George, not Danny, and I doubt if it was the great love of her life since it lasted only three months. She was never employed as Aunt Jemima. A cross wasn't burned on her lawn in Los Angeles by her bigoted white neighbors (they did the bigoted white thing and took her to court to sustain the segregated covenant law; they lost).

The verdict:

Don't take this musical play too much on fact, but, on faith, it's undeniable. Omar's a force to be reckoned with, and she relishes the opportunity to tear up the place with "The Birth of the Blues," "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," "Gimme a Pig Foot (and a Bottle of Beer)" and "Just One Sorrowing Heart" (written by McDaniel), among many others.

While the costume design doesn't go much farther than a series of unflattering hats, the set by Kenneth Constant -- in the Ensemble's small black box theater -- is evocative of McDaniel's memories: a Chinese screen, a divan for a swoon, a standing microphone, a faded poster for Show Boat, the role of Queenie being one of McDaniel's showstoppers.

Director Bebe Wilson keeps the action moving, even when Parr wants to stop it with histrionics and daytime TV dramatics. If you know nothing about Hattie McDaniel's life pre-Hollywood, Hi-Hat Hattie is a good place to start. Then go to Netflix and order up her films. She's a revelation, something this musical should be, but sadly isn't.

The play runs through May 11 at Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main. For tickets, call 713-520-0055.

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