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(mis)UNDERSTANDING MAMMY: The Hattie McDaniel Story is a one-woman play with music that explores Hattie McDaniel’s controversial life and her attempt to vindicate herself in the face of the unrelenting Hollywood campaign against Mammyism led by Walter White of the NAACP. It is a play about race in a time and place when questions of race were just coming to the fore. Hattie became a Hollywood icon for becoming the first African-American to win an Academy Award, but by playing a succession of maids and cooks, most notably Mammy in Gone With The Wind, she became the chief target of White’s crusade, and despite her efforts to bring dignity and humanity to her characters, ironically, her film career was virtually destroyed for the very reason she was honored and revered.

                The play is set in 1952 at the Motion Picture Country Home and Hospital in Woodlands Hills, California, where Hattie is battling breast cancer. In her weakened state, she imagines that Walter White has come to visit her to reconcile their differences. For the first time Hattie directly confronts her most vocal critic to prove to him that she was in fact a credit to her race. Through words and song, Hattie proudly recounts her miraculous life story as the daughter of a slave who first became a child vaudeville star in her hometown of Denver, a traveling jazz singer and cabaret star in the Mid-west, then a world-famous movie star in Hollywood, and finally a radio celebrity, the first African-American to play a leading role on a national radio program. When Hattie got to Hollywood, she was befriended by the rich and famous, black and white alike, and Hattie regales Walter with anecdotes about those friends, including how she landed the part of Mammy in Gone With The Wind (including comic impersonations of producer David O. Selznick, Bing Crosby and Eleanor Roosevelt), and the searing truth about her failure to appear at the premiere of the movie in Atlanta. She also reveals the sad truths about her personal life--her four failed marriages and her constant longing for the child she never had.

        But as Hattie tries to persuade Walter White of her self-worth and her own methods of fighting racism in Hollywood, it is clear that her life was a roller-coaster of highs and lows--tremendous triumphs juxtaposed with all too frequent bouts of depression. While the world knew Hattie for her good-nature and sunny disposition, beneath it all there was unexpressed anger, fear and even self-doubt. And to a woman for whom race never mattered, race became her hidden enemy. At the end of the play when the tension between light and dark-skinned blacks in Hollywood is revealed, Hattie’s life—so often misunderstood—is fully illuminated.

Drama Desk nomination
Outstanding Solo Performance for 

Capathia Jenkins 

for her portrayal of 
Hattie McDaniel

Black Theatre Alliance Nomination:
Best Solo Performance for 

Capathia Jenkins 

for her portrayal of 
Hattie McDaniel

Chicago Tribune
Critics’ Pick of the Festival
Emerging Artists Theatre Company
February-March, 2007 
            (sold-out end of run)
Chicago Humanities Festival: 
Little Black Pearl, one-night-only staged reading, 
October 2007
(sold-out performance)


Click on the links below for more information about this work.


The Hattie McDaniel Story




The Hattie McDaniel Story

By Joan Ross Sorkin


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Poster Design: Tzip Kaplan

Photos: Emerging Artists Theatre

The Jefferson Playhouse
Jefferson, TX
Tara in Texas II
(weekend for fans of Gone With The Wind) Performances: April 22-23, 2010
Script and production materials 
archived in 
Schomburg Center for Research 
in Black Culture 
(New York Public Library, 2013)