Hi-Hat Hattie | Theater | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Hi-Hat Hattie

An effective if mostly misty-eyed portrait of pioneering entertainer Hattie McDaniel

Even without the occasional bio-augmentation of Larry Parr's Hi-Hat Hattie, the life of Hattie McDaniel was truly amazing and dramatic. Best known to movie audiences as the first African American to win an Academy Award — for her supporting role as "Mammy" in Gone With the Wind — the remarkable Ms. McDaniel was also a notable singer, songwriter and activist. These many facets of the life and legend are celebrated in New Horizon Theater's staging of Parr's 1990 one-woman musical, directed by company artistic director Eileen J. Morris and starring Shaunyce Omar in the larger-than-life role she has recreated elsewhere.

Hattie, a mostly misty-eyed reminiscence of McDaniel's life before its untimely end, in 1952, from breast cancer, begins with her equally remarkable family. Her parents, former slaves now active in the church (preacher Daddy was also a Civil War veteran), gave 13 children a middle-class upbringing. Hattie, the youngest, was also the fourth in show business, and obviously the most successful as one of the very first well-known African-American actors in our nation's history.

Inventing a winsome (if imaginary) love of her life for the four-times-married McDaniel, Hattie tends to whittle away some of the more interesting aspects of the real person. The play dwells on the star's public-relations problems with a narrow-minded NAACP, which criticized the success of African-American actors for portraying the domestics and other stereotypical roles available to them. (Actually, McDaniel did get her dramatic teeth into a racially challenging role in 1942's In This Our Life.)

What Hattie and Ms. Omar do best are the songs (I especially appreciated her take on Bessie Smith's "Kitchen Man"), ably assisted by music director Henry L. Biggs. And, oh yes, the backstage gossip. Ms. McDaniel and fellow activists did producer David O. Selznick a huge favor by negotiating "the N word" out of GWTW. Can you imagine the shelf life of his "classic movie" otherwise?

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