It took nearly twenty-five years after Hattie McDaniel’s historic Oscar win in 1940 for “Gone with the Wind” for another Black artist (Sidney Poitier) to receive an Academy Award. McDaniel’s portrayal of “Mammy” in the Civil War-era film has long been hotly debated, though as LaDarrion Williams’ portrayal of McDaniel so eloquently puts it: “I’d rather play a maid than be one.” The role of Mammy, as well as the other servant roles she played through the years, haunted (and continue to haunt) McDaniel’s legacy. Even the whereabouts of her Oscar are unknown—it is believed to have been stolen from Howard University during civil rights protests.
McDaniel’s artistry and life were complicated, much like history. That’s why TimeLine’s production of “Boulevard of Bold Dreams” suits them so well. We get to imagine what things were like for McDaniel in the Ambassador Hotel before the 1940 Academy Awards ceremony. Suddenly she’s given a chance to speak through Williams’ history-informed fictional interpretation rather than the words that were handed to her for the ceremony by an overbearing studio.
Draped elegantly in greens and golds, the cocktail lounge inside the segregated Ambassador Hotel is reminiscent of Scarlett O’Hara’s green velvet ball gown made from her mother’s curtains. The Black staff in the lounge (Charles Andrew Gardner as Arthur Brooks and Mildred Marie Langford as Dottie Hudson) are well aware they wouldn’t be allowed in the hotel as guests. The environment reminds us all that “Gone with the Wind” represented a time in American history, though its forties-era reality was still far from equitable. And for McDaniel (Gabrielle Lott-Rogers), the whole situation around her role and nomination remind her that she doesn’t just want to make a name for herself. She’s there to ensure the legacy of her mother who was a slave in that so-called bygone era.
It’s impossible for me to separate all I know of “Gone with the Wind” from this production. As a triple major in undergrad (theater, English, film/media) I studied the novel and film extensively for my English thesis. I examined how the storytelling differs from page to screen, how cultures in both mediums informed those interpretations and how vastly the changes impact the characters. In all of those hours of study, there was one thing I knew to be certain. McDaniel was not going to let Hollywood take advantage of her. She demanded script changes, she played into stronger interpretations of the problematic role and the film still got made. It still received accolades. It is still the highest-grossing film of all time (accounting for inflation).
McDaniel’s work on that film can tell the Hollywood and Broadway of today that artists don’t deserve to be pigeonholed, mistreated or demeaned. The art will be better for it.
Lott-Rogers’ poised yet deeply human McDaniel is everything I ever thought her to be. In Williams’ script, McDaniel finally gets her say on a complicated legacy. We see firsthand how her work affects two vastly different artists in Dottie and Arthur. The show makes clear that no one person can be the speaker for all people because we can’t all see things from the same perspective. She gets to give the speech she should have been able to give all those decades ago. But, perhaps most importantly of all, we get to witness a moment with her that brings the whole show to an emotional climax. TimeLine’s work once again aptly demonstrates that we cannot reinvent history, though what it means to us can always be reinvigorated.
“Boulevard of Bold Dreams” at TimeLine Theatre Company, 615 West Wellington, timelinetheatre.com, $47. Now through March 19.