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McDaniel in the Lion's Den Capathia Jenkins' new show looks at the groundbreaking, and embattled, black film star Hattie McDaniel.
After a series of thankless roles, the big black lady wanted to stop the show.

"I had just had a conversation with my agent, telling him, 'I'm a little disillusioned with theatre, and I'm not interested in the black mama roles,' " says Capathia Jenkins. "You know, where they would say, 'We need someone to come in and sing a gospel song and bring down the house.' I had done Caroline or Change, which I so believed in and which got all this critical acclaim, but couldn't run on Broadway. So I thought, If this can't run, maybe this isn't the place for me."

Just then, oddly enough, the musical theatre gave her a forum to vent about it: Composer Marc Shaiman sent Jenkins a song he'd written for the show Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me, titled "Big Black Lady Stops the Show." It became the show's eleventh-hour roof-raiser, both parodying and, in Jenkins' capable hands accomplishing, what its title advertised.

"It was the very thing I was complaining about!" Jenkins says. "I immediately fell in love with it."

That experience might explain why Jenkins, who opens this week in the title role of the solo show (Mis)Understanding Mammy: The Hattie McDaniel Story, can say now, "There is a part of me that absolutely identifies with Hattie McDaniel. As much as things change, things also kind of stay the same. People love those classic old musicals where blacks were slaves and maids. But I wanna move on and tell stories about what's going on in Capathia's world, today! That's hard to find."

Joan Ross Sorkin's new play depicts McDaniel near the end of her life, which ended in 1957 after a battle with breast cancer. Sorkin imagines a heavily medicated McDaniel imagining that she's visited by the critics who dogged her pioneering career, and gives her the chance for a full-throated answer back.

Though she was the first African-American actor to win an Oscar, there's no getting around the fact that she won it playing the sassy maid in Gone With the Wind--a type she pretty much owned in several film roles in the 1930s and 1940s, from Alice Adams to Song of the South. But by the late '40s and early '50s, the NAACP's Walter White was leading a charge to end what he called "mammyism"--shorthand for the hoary stereotypes of black characters that were rampant in Hollywood films, and not representative of the full range of African-American experience.

"She broke the color barrier so many times in her career," Jenkins notes of McDaniel. "Which is what's so ironic about the campaign against mammyism. She felt she was doing the right thing, in terms of being a credit to her race, but her own race was saying, 'Take the handkerchief off your head.' "

Putting the same issue in contemporary perspective, Jenkins says, "My friends and I have these discussions all the time. Looking at the entertainment industry, if you had a situation where you had mammies onstage but you also had other roles, if we were fully represented in all aspects of our experience, it wouldn't be a problem."

Oddly enough, in both McDaniel's and Jenkins' cases, the place where the spectre of race has raised its head most insistently has been in the image-making realm of show business. McDaniel, whose father had been born a slave, was raised in Denver, Colo., and didn't experience pervasive racial typing until she moved to Hollywood as a young woman to pursue acting. Likewise Jenkins, raised proudly in Brooklyn, is never so aware of her blackness as when she's working in the theatre.

"I never really directly experienced people calling me the 'n' word, but in this industry a lot of times I'm the only black person in the room," Jenkins says. "Even onstage, nobody in the crew, the audience or the cast is black. So it's like, I never forget that I'm black--it's always in the forefront of my mind."

Given her previous credits, what might be foremost in her audience's mind is musical theatre. Not to worry: (Mis)Understanding Mammy includes a few musical numbers, since McDaniel herself had a career as a nightclub singer and songwriter. This time, though, the big black lady won't stop the show; she is the show.

"(Mis)UNDERSTANDING MAMMY: The Hattie McDaniel Story" runs through Mar. 4 at Theatre 5, 311 W. 43rd St., 5th Floor. TDF accepted. (212) 247-2429, www.eatheatre.org.