Vickilyn Reynolds in Hattie...What I Need You To Know!
(© Barry Mason)
Vickilyn Reynolds in Hattie...What I Need You To Know!
(© Barry Mason)
Vickilyn Reynolds is a vocal powerhouse. In her bio-musical about Hattie McDaniel, Hattie...What I Need You To Know!, currently at the National Black Theatre, Reynolds suffuses each and every one of the dozen songs she sings with passion. Unfortunately, her playwriting is less adept, and includes some clunkily delivered exposition and insufficient depth of characterization.

The piece begins with a video montage of individuals such as Charles Dutton reflecting on McDaniel's place in history, as well as footage of the Oscars ceremony in which she became the first African-American performer to receive the Academy Award, for her portrayal of Mammy in Gone With the Wind. Soon, Reynolds enters as Hattie, and tells the audience stories from her life, including the deaths of several family members, her failed marriages, and the ups and downs of her show business career.

The main problem with this structure is that it covers so much ground, so quickly, that we rarely get a sense of the people in McDaniel's life. A seven-person ensemble (Victor Arnez, Nirine S. Brown, Michelle Concha, Elasea Douglas, Ricardo G. Field, Roz D. Fox, and Damiyr Shuford) play multiple parts, but only have time to convey their roles in fairly broad terms, often to the point of caricature.

Reynolds gives herself a little more to work with, and there are several poignant moments in her overview, including a possible suicide attempt and a false pregnancy. However, the piece is so concerned with depicting McDaniel as a role model that it hardly ever lets us see the humanizing flaws that could make for a more fully developed portrait. The show skims over the antagonism between McDaniel and the NAACP's Walter White, although to its credit, it ends with a defiant acknowledgment of the stereotyped roles that McDaniel was allowed to portray. "Don't be ashamed when you hear my name called," she says before launching into the rousing gospel number, "Don't Give Me No Credit," which ends the performance.

The musical numbers -- most of them written by Reynolds herself -- are the definite high points of the show, from the defiant anthem, "I Won't Be Hushed" to the spectacular first act closer, "St. Louis Blues," to the incredibly moving, "A Childless Mother." While the ensemble is occasionally engaged to sing backup, Reynolds takes the lead in all of the songs, to spectacular effect.