Theater review: One-woman show “Hi-Hat Hattie” touts the legacy of an African American pioneer in Hollywood
By Lisa Kennedy Nov 30, 2017, 6:30 pm
Anna Maria High as “Hi-Hat Hattie,” presented by the Aurora Fox Theatre. (Provided by Aurora Fox Theatre)
A young girl with a sweet, quivering voice sings the familiar opening of “Amazing Grace.” A memory, this youngster stands in the church where her father, a freed slave, is minister. Her voice grows steady and bolder as she grows older. This vocal transformation from girl to young woman to adult seamlessly performing the same hymn of humility makes for one of the finest moments in the one-woman show “Hi-Hat Hattie,” onstage at the Aurora Fox through Dec. 23.
Hattie McDaniel is vividly alive and well portrayed by Anna Maria High in the biographical show written by Larry Parr. The tale of the iconic actress known for her roles as a maid might sound like heavier fare than the typical holiday offerings. But director Melissa Lucero McCarl, musical director Jodel Charles and lead High find plenty of warm light in a show in which America’s and Hollywood’s history of racism cast shadows.
As Hattie, High bestows her ample gifts on the Denver-bred movie star who in 1940 became the first African American to win an Academy Award. (McDaniel went to East High School.) She received the best supporting actress award (at the time a plaque, not a statuette) for her indelible if troubling performance as Mammy in “Gone With the Wind.”
A memory play, “Hi-Hat Hattie” is fluid and entertaining. Hattie’s recollections of fame and misfortune, love and loss, compromise and self-awareness, are punctuated by rich versions of standards, among them “Danny Boy,” “St. Louis Blues,” and “Old Man River.” Wearing a pork-pie hat, music director Jodel Charles sits at a grand piano providing Hattie syncopated or stirring accompaniment to a soulful songbook. (The Aurora Fox upgraded its sound system recently, and it shows.)
High gives a winking, slinking performance of “Gimme a Pigfoot (And a Bottle of Beer),” a song that blues empress Bessie Smith made a hit. In fact, an online search will confirm that there was more gravel to McDaniel’s singing voice. Blessed with a finer instrument, High hits the high notes — and all the others — to winning effect. Still, you can be forgiven for wanting a bit more of Hattie’s grit.
The youngest of 13 children, Hattie admits she worked hard to get attention. A dramatic (wryly hammy) recitation of the poem “Convict Joe” garnered her a gold medal from the Women’s Christian Temperance Union when she was a teen.
As a vaudeville performer who fell on tough times, she appeared nightly as a women’s room attendant in a Milwaukee club before the proprietor saw the wisdom in putting her on stage instead.
McDaniel’s brother Sam and sister Etta arrived in Hollywood before she would. That hinted-at story presents a “what-if” scenario. What if, for instance, a playwright or screenwriter told that part of Hattie’s story — the one about a black minister’s family making their way to Los Angeles and into showbiz in the early ’30s? Just saying.
McDaniel was cast along with Paul Robeson in the 1935 version of the movie musical “Show Boat,” and High does a comedically agile take on their duet, “I Still Suits Me,” donning on a straw hat to sing the booming bass-baritone’s part and kerchief to recall her own.
Anna Maria High as “Hi-Hat Hattie,” presented by the Aurora Fox Theatre. (Jeremy Rill Photography, Provided by Aurora Fox Theatre)
McDaniel’s Academy Award achievement is impossible to sever from Hollywood’s vexed history. “Gone With the Wind” was author Margaret Mitchell’s approving nod to D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation,” itself a big-screen adaptation of the racist novel “The Clansman.” The portrayal that secured her a career in the 1940s and ’50s also reflected a kind of typecasting. Something worse than typecasting.
During the early Civil Rights movement, Walter White, the head of the NAACP, openly criticized black actors for the servile roles they took, often singling out McDaniel’s portrayals as particularly egregious. While McDaniel’s roles didn’t change much during her career, black Americans’ opinions about those roles were becoming more pointed. (Even Hattie winces at the Aunt Jemima commercial she voiced for the pancake mix.)
McDaniel appears no fewer than 37 times in film historian Donald Bogle’s influential reconsideration of black actors in Hollywood, “Toms, Coons, Mulattos, Mammies & Bucks.” First published in 1973, the book’s thesis was “that many black actors … have played at some time or another … stereotyped roles. But the essence of black film history is not found in the stereotyped roles but in what certain talented actors have done with the stereotype.”
“Hi-Hat Hattie” recoups a lesser-known bit of industry history. McDaniel, along with Lincoln Perry (stage name “Stepin Fetchit”) and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, were part of the Fair Play Committee, a Hollywood organization of black actors that lobbied the industry for better, more varied roles. The NAACP leader dismissed the committee in his showboating trips to L.A.
“Hi-Hat Hattie” imagines McDaniel’s point of view, with all the pride and the defensiveness that story might entail. The actress died in 1952 of breast cancer, yet her legacy remains potent and challenging.
“Hi-Hat Hattie” explores the weight of her — our — world while remaining buoyant