The Mammy Project
nytheatre.com review by Jason Jacobs
January 22, 2007
"I's in town, honey!" chirps Aunt Jemima , the wide-eyed, toothy-grinned, African American mammy—first played by former slave Nancy Green—as she cheerfully greets her white visitors at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The marketing of this fun-loving, big-boned gal from down south was a shrewd maneuver by R.T. Davis Milling Company to sell their new, just-add-water pancake mix. Both the product and the stereotype sold so well that they are still in active circulation more than a century later. Michelle Matlock created The Mammy Project to explore this phenomenon in a personal, but highly theatrical, context. She's toured the piece since 2001; it makes me smile to announce that now Matlock is in town, honey! Her piece is delicious but also offers a lot to digest, and my advice is to get it while it's hot.
At the beginning of the play, an impassioned Matlock declares "I wish somebody would just walk away with all of my stuff." Already, we've been exposed to the "stuff" she refers to: as we come into the theatre, we see a collection of mammy china, cookie jars, and salt-and-pepper shakers displayed on stage. The show opens with a quick series of film clips, expertly assembled by Kris Anton, tracing the history of Hollywood mammies, including Hattie McDaniel and Butterfly McQueen in Gone With The Wind, Louise Beavers and Juanita Moore in two versions of Imitation of Life, and moving forward to Whoopi Goldberg and Queen Latifah in contemporary versions of the mothering maid.
Matlock recalls a high school drama teacher warning her she would always be subject to typecasting. In contrast to McDaniel, Matlock vowed never to play a maid. But when she was called in to audition for an Aunt Jemima commercial, Matlock resolved that instead of avoiding the looming stereotype, it was time to confront mammy head-on. No wonder an actor of Matlock's talent and range feels restricted by the limitation of this role. It's a testament to her wisdom as an artist that she can both embody the stereotype while expressing her resistance. Matlock can acknowledge her anger, yet she approaches the mammy icon with such intelligence and openness that her play never feels strident. It seems that she has followed the advice of James Baldwin, who warned that before celebrating "the demise of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Tom...we had better ask from whence they sprang (and) how they lived."
The Mammy Project explores the origins, transformations, and the power of this image within American popular culture. It traces the evolution of Aunt Jemima—originally a drag character played by white men in minstrel shows, then appropriated by another white man to market a product to white consumers. Matlock enacts her imagined history of Nancy Green, relaying bitter memories of a girlhood in slavery and following her surprising performance career after her 1893 Chicago debut. The collage-like text, written by Matlock and co-developed with Joan Evans, shifts between Green's story, Matlock's personal commentaries, and includes many other voices—both historical and imagined. In one of the strongest moments, Matlock plays a motor-mouthed auctioneer at a slave auction, placing the audience in the position of the bidders, and then replays the entire episode in total silence from the experience of the woman on the auction block. Some moments don't play quite as well—excepts of speeches from African American activists Ida B. Wells and Frederick Douglass, though perhaps historically relevant, feel heavy-handed and didactic compared to the fluidity and wit of Matlock's writing. And a monologue about a white woman sharing her collection of mammy china, along with her barely concealed bigotry, doesn't move anywhere unexpected. As a whole though, the piece takes us on an imaginative and challenging journey.
Aptly crafted by director Amy Gordon, Matlock effortlessly transforms from character to character with great specificity. The witty multimedia elements created by Anton and edited by Noah Todd, plus a humorous animated film about the history of minstrel performance by Mornography, are fun—though one wishes the layout of the stage didn't sometimes force us to choose between watching the screen instead of watching Matlock. The piece is also well supported by original music by Raj Azar and Jen Urban. Since it runs in repertory with two other plays presented by the Roundtable Ensemble, Matlock performs on a neutral set designed by Ryan Palmer which neither inhibits nor particularly adds to the piece. Nick Francone's lighting is also effective without providing any specific atmosphere or mood.
Fortunately, Matlock's energized, vivid, and nuanced performance holds the center from start to finish. In the play's final gesture, the Aunt Jemima pancake box comes to life and talks to us. It seems like the rest of the evening has prepared us for this disorientating, magical moment. From the box, Aunt Jemima informs us "I's going to be around for a long time," and leaves us with an impression that is impossible to forget. Still, Matlock refuses to be kept in a box, both literally and figuratively. When she steps out, it is a declaration of her resolve to live and work on her own terms. Matlock follows the performance with a discussion with the audience—allowing us to express feelings and questions raised by the piece. "It's a complex issue," Matlock acknowledged in the discussion I witnessed. Thankfully, Matlock has the heart and wisdom to embrace this complexity. I realized that The Mammy Project is indeed a project—an open exploration of an evolving issue that is too complicated, and fascinating, to contain in a box.