Accurate representation has become more of a priority in filmmaking and casting. This progress was achieved thanks to the efforts of pioneer artists such as Hattie McDaniel, who pushed the boundaries of acting and performance in film. It is crucial to honor those such as McDaniel who strove for equality in earlier generations, and the musical play “Hattie McDaniel…What I Need You to Know!” does this effectively.
The play, which showed last weekend only at San Francisco’s Cowell Theater, is a biographical one-woman show directed by Byron Nora and performed and sung by Vickilyn Reynolds. It is a musical that recounts the life of veteran actor McDaniel, the first African American to receive an Oscar — she won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance as Mammy in the classic film “Gone with the Wind.”
Reynolds certainly deserves fervent applause for her intense one-woman performance of this lauded artist’s life. She managed to keep the audience on the edges of its seats without any onstage help; her presence and aura alone were just that powerful. Although adapting to the persona of more than a handful of characters, delivering impeccable impersonations and singing gorgeously would seemingly tire anyone out, there was not a single sign of wavering in the quality of her work as the show progressed. Furthermore, Reynolds wrote most of the songs in the program and worked tirelessly as the co-executive producer. If there is anyone who deserves to portray the determined, hard-working, talented McDaniel, that person is none other than the equally hard-working and talented Reynolds.
The narrative framing of this play was captivating. Not only did Reynolds act out the memories of McDaniel’s early childhood and adult life, but she also took on the roles of her close family and friends. Each time she shifted among her roles, she would utilize the set, circling behind a couch; by the end of her short journey, she had already transformed effortlessly into another character, donning a new countenance, posture or accent. The ability to shift moods and appearance in such a quick manner was impressive.
The lighting in this show was also clever. The spotlight was on Reynolds throughout most of the show and she coordinated her movements with certain beat changes in the play, the lights following suit as she crossed the stage. The use of lighting and stage directions to highlight a change in topic really helped guide the audience and allowed enough time to empathize with McDaniel’s story. The most memorable lighting stunt was the scene in which Reynolds described the stroke McDaniel went through. In the lead-up, Reynolds’ body was bent at an awkward angle of discomfort; as soon as the word “stroke” left her mouth, the lights shut off abruptly like eyes being closed, plunging the audience into the darkness, loneliness and pain that McDaniel once endured.
Reynolds’ ability to deliver humor was rather impressive — her jokes were sassy and sharp. She revisited the humorous parts of McDaniel’s early life and extended them through the play, keeping the audience engaged throughout. While retelling the accounts of McDaniel’s love life, Reynolds asked the audience to keep up with how many husbands McDaniel had. This direct interaction aroused laughter from the audience. Later on, Reynolds checked to see if the audience had been paying attention and subtly asked which husband she was currently talking about — when a member of the audience answered correctly, she said, “That’s right!” and the whole theater erupted into fits of laughter.
Apart from the high-caliber facets of the performance, the ethical content of this production made it even more relatable and inspiring. It vividly illustrates the prejudice that McDaniel had to endure in the American entertainment industry, an issue that is still pertinent today. Without a doubt, her story of success will encourage the underrepresented to be assertive about their goals.
“Hattie McDaniel…What I Need You to Know!” is not only the retelling of the life of an exceptional artist, but is also an extension of the warmth, love and social justice that Hattie McDaniel stood for.