In 1940, Hattie McDaniel became the first black person to win an Academy Award, making history by taking home the Oscar statue for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Mammy in the epic Gone with the Wind.
While this was definitely a step forward towards equal rights, the events were still marred by terrible racism, discrimination, and bigotry. Even a proud day can be filled with rain.
POWERFUL WORLD PREMIER
Boulevard of Bold Dreams is a new play in its world premiere at TimeLine Theatre Company in Chicago. Written by gifted scribe LaDarrion Williams, the play examines the social tensions and personal pressures in the hours leading up to Ms. McDaniel’s appearance at the 1940 Oscar ceremony.
Taking place in the cocktail lounge of the Coconut Grove, Ambassador Hotel in Hollywood on the eve of the Oscars, Boulevard of Bold Dreams sees Ms. McDaniel fighting the pressures to and not to appear at the event while discussing her journey and the plight of black people in Hollywood and in general with two of the hotel’s employees.
Bartender Arthur Brooks also has dreams of Hollywood. He has given up his whole life to come from Alabama to tinsel town in hopes of becoming a movie director. Dottie Hudson, a maid at the hotel, came from Alabama at Arthur’s urgings. His lifelong, platonic best friend, Arthur plans to make Dottie’s singing the star of his films.
Gone with the Wind is one of the most famous and most popular films of all time. In fact, once you adjust for inflation, statistically it is the highest-grossing film of all time.
Starring Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, Gone with the Wind was not without conflict. While many applauded Ms. McDaneil’s nomination for Best Supporting Actress, there were detractors on both sides.
Further, even though she was nominated for an Oscar, she wasn’t allowed to sit with the rest of the cast of the film. And when she won, unlike white actors she wasn’t allowed to give her own speech. Rather she had to give a speech written for her by the movie studio.
Many people did not honor McDaniel as a trailblazer, but rather criticized her for playing what some considered a glorified slave. These criticisms included those from prominent figures is the black community.
But, as Hattie points out, you have to take the opportunities that are available. And, being paid to play a maid to plantation owners in the movies is at least a step up from being a maid to plantation owners in real life.
Indeed, Boulevard of Bold Dreams is a powerful, moving and thoroughly electrifying exploration of the human spirit as it relates to the black experience in Hollywood.
In 2010, Mo’Nique won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance in the film Precious. In her acceptance speech she stated, “I want to thank Miss Hattie McDaniel for enduring all that she had to so that I would not have to.” And it is this quote that begins the play, before we are transported back in time to the eve of the Academy Awards in 1940 Hollywood.
Parked away in TimeLine’s unique, inventive black box space, the set for Boulevard of Bold Dreams from scenic designer Ryan Emens is immaculate and incredible. The millwork on the bar is exquisite. The painting is ideal. The bottles and glasses and other properties from Lonnae Hickman finish off the perfect picture. The attention to detail by Emens and Hickman is absolutely astounding. It is one of the best sets Chicago has ever seen.
MAGIC IS IN THE DETAILS
That attention to detail is further escalated by costume designer Christine Pascual. Her work is stunning. The actors in the piece could easily step right back in time and fit right in.
Projections designer Rasean Davonté Johnson, lighting designer Jason Lynch, and sound designers Daniel Etti-Williams and André Pluess all deserve the highest praise.
Director Malkia Stampley knows how to use the tools at her availability. She uses the small performance space to perfection. She uses the brilliant prose of LaDarrion Williams to create a true artistic tapestry. And, she uses the talents of three phenomenal actors to bring the whole piece to life.
Charles Andrew Gardner plays young Alabama transplant Arthur Brooks. Gardner, too, pays close attention to details. His physical touches to the role are nuanced and a delight to put under the magnifying glass.
Gardner starts off the show alone, talking to himself or on the phone. Solo time on stage like this can be some of the hardest to effectively fill, but Gardner does a good job. It is, however, when he shares the stage with his other actors and gets into volleys of dialogue back and forth that his character truly comes alive. There are times that Gardner simply transcends into magnificence.
Mildred Marie Langford makes a very strong showing as Dottie Hudson. The role of Dottie requires a wide range of emotions that Langford handles with great skill. She is extremely adept at finding the humor in the lines, even when it is uncomfortable humor. However, she does not shy away from drama either. Simply put, Mildred Marie Langford is extremely talented and an actress to watch.
Among the many brilliant aspects of this world premiere of Boulevard of Bold Dreams involves the details Langford puts in to how her character changes as she drinks, and how openly she drinks to match different situations. These aspects are extremely well executed.
Gabrielle Lott-Rogers is captivating, stunning, and dazzling as Hattie McDaniel. Playing a real person is a daunting challenge. Playing a historical character with original dialogue with no frame of reference could be intimidating to some, but Lott-Rogers is amazing.
To watch Gabrielle Lott-Rogers perform in Boulevard of Bold Dreams is like opening up a portal to history and being in the room with the real Hattie McDaniel and witnessing the real conflict that burned in her on the night of the Oscars.
There are also a small selection of songs in the show, with lyrics by LaDarrion Williams and music by Malkia Stampley. Lott-Rogers and Langford show off some really powerful music chops and the music really adds another whole dimension to the play.
TimeLine Theatre Company strives to explore today through the lens of the past, and Boulevard of Bold Dreams fits spectacularly well into that mission. It is a powerful look at the past, that will give you added insight into the present. You will be moved. You will be touched. You will be changed.
There is also a very well put together lobby display on the history of Hattie McDaniel and the black experience in Hollywood. When you make plans to see Boulevard of Bold Dreams at TimeLine Theatre Company you should make time to fully absorb this informative display.
Boulevard of Bold Dreams runs through March 19 at TimeLine Theatre located at 615 W. Wellington Avenue in Chicago’s Lakeview East neighborhood. Performances are Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 PM, Fridays at 8 PM, Saturdays at 4 PM and 8 PM, and Sundays at 2 PM. There are post-show and pre-show discussions with TimeLine Company members on select dates. For tickets call (773) 281-8463 or visit www.TimeLineTheatre.com.
Peace. Love. Trust.
Rikki Lee Travolta
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