Actress. Activist. Fashionista. Innovator. These descriptions apply to a number of Hollywood divas. But would you link them to Hattie McDaniel? Yes, the Hattie McDaniel who was the first black actor to win an Oscar. Don’t judge Lady M for her mammy characters. When the cameras were off and the head rag removed, Miss Hattie was a stylish entertainer with an interesting love life and fine taste. She loved her sorority, my sorority, Sigma Gamma Rho and believed in service. McDaniel successfully took legal action to end raced-based restrictions in real estate ownership. Actress and Philly-native Vickilyn Reynolds gives voice to the late and misunderstood actress in the musical play “Hattie... What I Need You to Know.” Reynolds, more like a vessel for McDaniel’s spirit, portrays the late actress telling her story. Reynolds wrote the play (the first she has ever written) which has traveled to New York City and Denver, McDaniel’s birth city. The play is running in Los Angeles at the Stage 52 Theater every Friday-Sunday until March 20th( go here for ticket info). Reynolds talked to me about learning self-love through Lady M, understanding her struggles and lesbian rumors surrounding the iconic actress.
|Oscar Winner Hattie McDaniel. Notice the |
resemblence between Miss Hattie and Vickilyn Reynolds.
You have performed all over the world and acted in film, television and theater. What inspired you to create this production?
Well I didn’t want to do it. I was ignorant to Hattie McDaniel because I thought all she did was play mammies and was a discredit to the race. Besides that, while writing this I found I had a truckload of self-hatred. People from time to time, even when I was younger, would say I look like Hattie McDaniel. I didn’t take that as a compliment. Before my brother passed away in ’95 he said, “Vickilyn, you should do a story on Hattie McDaniel.” … So I said let me do a little research on this lady. I fell in love with this woman. She was a pioneer. She was ahead of her time. I found I started loving myself through the process. I really believe this is one of my destinies.
Hattie had conflict with the NAACP because of the roles she played.
That’s what I picked up in my youth hearing that from people because I had no other reference.
As a black actress do you have more compassion for Hattie McDaniel because it’s harder for black actresses to get good roles?
Definitely. She did what she had to do in the time she lived. What I am ashamed of is that we’re still doing it and don’t have to. That’s the disappointment for me, to still be selling ourselves. We don’t have any dramas, no serious pieces or it is to the extreme. Until we have equal [access] to be able to speak about black interest in another form, then we have not reached the top of the mountain.
Idris Alba recently made similar comments about elevating the quality of black entertainment. You brought up the absence of black dramas, and the last one I can recall is “Soul Food” the TV series.
Now Oprah has a network and Tyler Perry [has a studio]. Everybody is in it for themselves and I know that’s what you do. But spread a little of that. I love Oprah but I’m so disappointed with her network thus far. But I’ll give her a chance.
I read her network’s ratings had dipped but I’m sure in time that will change.
She needs to put some more black people on there. And Tyler Perry is for Tyler Perry. He’s not putting up other black projects.
So you’re saying he should finance other movie makers.
Yeah, other projects besides his.
Did you talk to any of Hattie McDaniel’s family while doing research on her?
Yes, Edgar Goff and Mabel Collins collaborated on two of the songs. Mabel Collins is Edgar Goff’s wife and Edgar Goff is Hattie’s great-nephew. He gave me a lot of insight on her.
What was something that you learned about her that you were surprised to know?
There were so many things.
I didn’t know she was married four times [laughter].
I like the juicy stuff. But what’s funny about that is she played mammies. We don’t see the big, black woman in the mainstream in a loving, romantic relationship. She was married four times.
Big black women to black men were sexy. Hattie was a sex symbol.
The mammy is desexualized. To know Hattie was married four times disproves that myth. I’ve seen pictures of her in a fur coat standing by a fireplace. Those aren’t images we usually see of Hattie McDaniel. We usually see her with the mammy gear on.
Hattie was such a lady and a dresser. Truly, men loved her.
So often we look at trailblazers and heroes, but don’t see them as real people. I think we take them for granted.
Her story needs to be told. She deserves it. She went through a lot. She struggled and she was hurt over Walter White, his treatment of her. All she wanted to do was help. She had things changed in scripts.
Who was Walter White?
Walter White was the Executive Secretary of the NAACP. He was the one who brought Lena Horne into Hollywood.
That must be hard to try and break barriers when you don’t have support?
She wasn’t just working against the powers that be but her own people.
|Vickilyn Reynolds as Hattie McDaniel|
This is a weird question. As a writer, I’m curious to know your answer. When you write a song, how do you come up with the idea of the song?This has been an incredible journey. I’ve been trying to write songs for me to do a CD. It just doesn’t come. When I decided to do “Hattie” my husband bought me a laptop. When I sat down and started writing it just flowed…It was no mistake that I was born to look like Hattie McDaniel.
The title of your play is “Hattie: What I Need You to Know.” What do you think she needs us to know?
Before I started writing this I went to lie down at her grave and I started talking to her.
Reminds me of when Alice Walker went looking for Zora Neale Hurston’s unmarked grave and walked around the graveyard yelling Zora’s name. But, you were lying at Hattie’s grave…
Yeah I went to her grave and I talked to her. I can’t explain it to you in words but I would get a feeling. And on certain questions the feeling got even stronger. When I finished I felt like she said, “Go for it girl.” I feel like I told parts of her life that people would never know. That’s why I named the play because it’s what SHE wanted you to know. So many people, reviewers would say, “You didn’t say this or that. “ A producer friend of mine said, “You know she was lesbian?” I don’t know if she was a lesbian.
Right that is a rumor about her life.
I don’t know if she was a lesbian and nobody is here to confirm that. She had a lot of gay friends. She loved everybody and I know I have a lot of gay people in my life and people can presume I’m gay and be totally off mark. I’m not going to say she was gay. I’m not interested in that. I touched on [rumors] in the play about her and [actress] Marlene Dietrich.
That rumor speaks to her as being a woman ahead of her time because she was open to having friends of other sexualities. You’ve worked in TV, film and on stage. Which do you prefer?
I love theater. Theater is the hardest part of show business. You do eight shows a week. It’s live, it’s right there. You have immediate reaction from the audience. Television and film is hurry up and wait. It kills me. You get paid more for film and television but you work harder in theater.
She died of breast cancer. Ironically, she died in October which we now recognize as Breast Cancer Awareness Month. But she didn’t have a lot of money left. Was it because of health care bills?
I think she had $10,000 left. She was generous and her last three husbands were gold diggers. Especially the fourth one.
Was that the one she left $1?
The last one was Larry Williams and he spent her money like water. But $10,000 wasn’t anything to sneeze at then.
It’s not, but I read she made much more during her career.
She was a proud, black woman. She didn’t suffer from any hang ups as far as her looks. I’ve always had that all of my life, being a dark-skinned person. Philly is a very racial town among black people.
I grew up with the same thing among black people in Oakland. That’s just how we are.
I was slapped in the face when I was a little girl by a white man in South Carolina.
Oh my goodness.
I was slapped in the face by Chinese twins [in Philliy]. My brothers were ahead of me and we were [walking] to Bible school. They were walking fast and my short little legs couldn’t keep up. Those girls came out and said, “You black thing,” and slapped me across my face.
Growing up I was taught that I was great. I was fine. I looked in the mirror and loved my face. My mother and father told me I was the greatest thing in the world. It was a real conflict going from home where everybody loved you and going into the world and having your face slapped, it confused me.
Well, now that chocolate skin of yours is lightening up the stage [laughter].