Theater Review: BOULEVARD OF BOLD DREAMS (Greater Boston Stage Company in Stoneham, MA)

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by Lynne Weiss on March 5, 2023

in Theater-Regional

HATTIE, MAMMY AND OSCAR

Playwright LaDarrion Williams has mined a moment in history to explore the human cost of being the first to achieve a milestone in this moving and ultimately affirming exploration of the ambivalence surrounding the first Black person to receive an Academy Award. As many know, Hattie McDaniel, who played Scarlett O’Hara’s “mammy” in the highly successful (and notoriously racist) 1939 film Gone With the Wind, was that person. Boulevard of Bold Dreams depicts McDaniel (powerfully brought to life by Samantha Jane Williams) on Oscar night, sitting in L.A.’s Ambassador Hotel bar outside the ballroom where the awards will be presented. In the course of the play, she tells two Black employees—bartender Arthur Brooks (winningly portrayed by Stewart Evan Smith) and chambermaid Dottie Hudson (depicted by the feisty Michelle Fenelon)—of her ambivalence about attending the ceremony.

Samantha Jane Williams

She has been nominated, but she doesn’t yet know whether she will win. During presentation of the awards, she will be forced to sit at a separate table in a back corner of the ballroom, segregated from the other nominees (who are all white). In addition, she has been handed a speech, presumably written by the studio, in which she is told to say that she truly hopes that she will “always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry.”

Michelle Fenelon and Stewart Evan Smith

McDaniel is getting it from all sides. In addition to the racism of the film industry, she has been criticized by the NAACP, which hates this film that depicts enslaved Black people as loyal to the Confederacy and their enslavers. Criticized for taking roles as domestic workers, McDaniel retorts that she’d “rather play a maid than be one.” One of the most moving moments in this play occurs when Williams explains that in performing these roles she is honoring her mother and grandmother. She wants to bring visibility to these generations of Black women who spent their days scrubbing floors and washing sheets.

Samantha Jane Williams and Michelle Fenelon

Arthur Brooks and Dottie have their own reasons for urging McDaniel to accept the award. Brooks is an aspiring film director. He knows that McDaniel’s success will help pave the boulevard of his own bold dreams. For Dottie, the stakes are different. As a maid herself, she faces not only racism but also sexual harassment and assault. Though she is initially dismissive of the significance of the Academy Awards as just one more institution she is shut out of as a Black person, she becomes invested in McDaniel’s success after she hears her talk about the ways her performances bring visibility to Black women.

Michelle Fenelon, Samantha Jane Williams and Stewart Evan Smith

It is no surprise that McDaniel does indeed win the Academy Award. That part is history. But what this well-constructed play provides beyond that are brief film clips of all the Black women performers who won Oscars in the years following McDaniel’s success. It took a long time. Not until 1990, more than fifty years after McDaniel’s award, did Whoopi Goldberg win the award for Best Supporting Actress in Ghost. We see clips of all the women who won an award for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress. Mo’Nique, who won for Best Supporting Actress in Precious in 2009, sums up the feeling of the production when she says in her acceptance speech: “I want to thank Miss Hattie McDaniel for enduring all that she had to so I wouldn’t have to.”

Michelle Fenelon, Samantha Jane Williams

Playwright Williams does a terrific job of providing a peek at this moment in history through the experiences of these fictionalized Black characters as well as imagining the perspective of McDaniel herself. Producing Artistic Director Weylin Symes discovered the script, and Director Taavon Gamble puts us in that glamorous and yet deeply flawed era of Hollywood, so appropriately sited in Greater Boston Stage Company’s historic movie theater. The play is not a musical, but Hattie and Dottie bring their sweet voices to a couple of musical numbers, including one in which Dottie is transformed from her chambermaid uniform into a stunning silver gown that suggests her unrealized potential, and by implication that of so many Black artists whose gifts have been overlooked or thwarted. The skills of the scenic, costume, lighting, sound, and properties designers (Rachel Rose Buke, Klara Escalera, Corey Whittemore, James Cannon, and Emily Allinson) bring the excitement of Oscar night beyond the walls of the secluded bar where the action takes place to honor Hattie McDaniel and all the performers who have been inspired by her struggles and example.

Stewart Evan Smith

photos by Nile Scott Studios

Boulevard of Bold Dreams
East Coast Premiere
Greater Boston Stage Company
395 Main Street in ​Stoneham, MA
ends on March 19, 2023
for tickets ($25-69), call 781-279-2200 or visit GBSC

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