“I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race.” – Hattie McDaniel in her acceptance speech at the 1940 Academy Awards
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In examining the legacy of Hattie McDaniel, there are many complications that arise.
Certainly, McDaniel is revered in the history of film, becoming the first African-American woman to win an Academy Award for best supporting actress in 1939 for “Gone With the Wind.” And while Sidney Poitier won in 1963 for best actor in “Lillies of the Field,” an African-American woman did not covet McDaniel’s award until 1990, when Whoopi Goldberg won for her portrayal of an eccentric fortune teller in “Ghost.”
Where the complication begins is in what she portrayed. In “Gone With the Wind,” McDaniel played Mammy, a character who many felt fulfilled the subservient stereotypical Black maid of the Antebellum South, another archetype in the long Hollywood history of problematic film roles for people of color. And while National Association for the Advancement of Colored People leader Walter White famously feuded with her over the portrayal, a feud that truly crushed her spirit, the Oscar award was the beginning of the end of her long career.
Vickilyn Reynolds has found some magical yet painful parallels with McDaniel and is now kicking off her national tour of “Hattie McDaniel…What I Need You to Know,” with a first stop at the Cowell Theatre in San Francisco. The show, directed by Byron Nora and written by Reynolds, looks at the trials and tribulations of McDaniel’s life and career.
Reynolds has long felt a connection with McDaniel. Both had older brothers who brought them into the world of entertainment, and both of those brothers passed away at young ages. For both Reynolds and her brother Ronald Richardson, who originated the Tony Award-winning role of Jim in “Big River” on Broadway in 1985, their first repertory theatre was in their mother’s in-home beauty parlor in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in the early 1960s.
“My brother and I used to watch Miss America pageants and musicals, and he made my costumes out of newspaper and nylon stockings, and we would perform for my mother’s customers,” said Reynolds. “So often, customers would call my mother to ask if her kids were performing on Tuesday.”
It was that heavy dose of creativity as children that led Reynolds to lots of film and television roles. She has resided in Los Angeles since 1988, working steadily in Hollywood and on national stages throughout that time. Even though she has been involved with her latest piece for the past 11 years, taking three years to research and seven years to write, it was a piece her brother encouraged her to tackle before his passing in 1995.
The play that Reynolds originally wrote was penned for a cast of seven. But as it further developed, the show began to feel a bit too excessive, confirmed by critics in both New York City and Denver. And a spiritual tug from her brother cemented the final decision.
“It felt like it came from my brother, where he told me ‘Go ahead and do it Vicky, let it be a one-person show.’ It was a very good decision.
“The first time I did it (as a solo piece), I was a nervous wreck. But as the show went on, I became more comfortable and more relaxed, and after a few more times, the characters became totally clear. Whether it is doing papa, mama or even the little boy, all the characters are so clear now.”
Reynolds learned how much of a renaissance woman McDaniel was. McDaniel worked in nightclubs and extensively on the Vaudeville circuit just before the dawn of Hollywood blockbuster movie. She also was a prolific writer, played the drums, was a pioneer in the radio genre, and when she wasn’t blazing a trail on the stage, she was breaking down barriers off stage. When a group of citizens sued to keep McDaniel and other African-Americans from buying homes in the West Adams neighborhood of Los Angeles, the lawsuit was eventually thrown out, effectively killing off unfair housing practices in the eyes of the law for future generations.
For all Reynolds found that she can marvel at and admire, there was one other thing that was truly painful, and the hardest section of the play to both write and perform.
“With her first husband, she was truly in love and that was one of the greatest moments of her life, yet he passed away pretty quickly in her marriage,” said Reynolds. “She loved children and thought she was pregnant but found out she wasn’t.
“It was a terrible time in her life, and I can relate so strongly because I know how devastating it was when I had a stillborn child. That was the toughest part of writing the entire play, and I wouldn’t wish that anyone.”
From a professional standpoint, there were plenty of indignities McDaniel dealt with, including being banned from attending both the Atlanta premiere of “Gone With the Wind” and the 1940 Academy Awards ceremony, where it was known she would make history as the winners had been leaked to the press.
The 12th annual Academy Awards Ceremony was held at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub in The Ambassador Hotel, where there was a strict no-blacks policy. “Gone With the Wind” director David O. Selznick received a favor to allow her entry, yet she was not allowed to sit with fellow cast mates and nominees Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable. Her table was a small one off to the side, where she sat with her manager and escort.
Because of her portrayal, McDaniel found herself in the crosshairs of African-American society.
“The toughest thing for her to get past was Walter White and the NAACP, as well as with her own people,” said Reynolds. “Walter White dragged her through the coals and turned servicemen against her. She didn’t understand how what she had been doing all this time could be so bad now.”
Despite so many obstacles in the life of McDaniel, Reynolds is thrilled to bring honor and agency to her voice, a woman with two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and a woman who busted through walls and created pathways for names like Sidney Poitier, Halle Berry and Denzel Washington. She is also thrilled to return to the Bay Area to kick off the national tour, a region she last visited when performing in the musical “Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk.”
And every time Reynolds sets foot on the stage, even though it’s a one-person show, there will always be two others with her.
“I summon both my brother and Hattie on stage every time,” said Reynolds. “In my mind, I say ‘Come on Ron and Hattie, let’s do this.’”
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
Rich-Rey Productions LLC presents “Hattie McDaniel…What I Need to You Know”
Directed by Byron Nora
Written by and Starring Vickilyn Reynolds
The Cowell Theatre at the Fort Mason Center
2 Marina Blvd, Landmark Building C, Suite 260, San Francisco, CA 94123
Running Time: Two Hours, 15 minutes with one intermission
June 21st – 24th
Tickets range from $25 – $100
For tickets, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (415) 345-7500