‘Boulevard of Bold Dreams’ brilliantly depicts Hattie McDaniel’s dilemma on Oscar night

In play’s world premiere at TimeLine Theatre, skillful star Gabrielle Lott-Rogers embodies the grace and dignity that allowed ‘Gone With the Wind’ actor to rise above constant disrespect.

SHARE ‘Boulevard of Bold Dreams’ brilliantly depicts Hattie McDaniel’s dilemma on Oscar night
Facing racism and exclusion before the ceremony, Hattie McDaniel (Gabrielle Lott-Rogers) is not sure she should attend the Academy Awards to accept her Oscar in TimeLine Theatre’s production of “Boulevard of Bold Dreams.”

Facing racism and exclusion, Hattie McDaniel (Gabrielle Lott-Rogers) is not sure she should attend the ceremony to accept her Oscar for “Gone With the Wind” in TimeLine Theatre’s production of “Boulevard of Bold Dreams.”

Joel Maisonet

Before Halle Berry or Sidney Poitier, there was Hattie McDaniel. Eighty-three years ago this month, on Feb. 29, 1940, she became the first Black actor to win an Oscar.

Nominated as best supporting actress for her role in “Gone With the Wind,” the blockbuster film of 1939, McDaniel made history. But it came at a tremendous personal cost. LaDarrion Williams’ “The Boulevard of Bold Dreams,” now receiving a powerhouse, world-premiere staging at TimeLine Theatre, imagines McDaniel at a pivotal moment in her life, just hours before the Oscars. As she stops at a cocktail lounge to collect her thoughts, she ponders the existential question that poet Langston Hughes would sear into a nation’s consciousness a decade later: What happens to a dream deferred?

‘Boulevard of Bold Dreams’

Boulevard of Bold Dreams

When: Through March 19

Where: TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington

Tickets: $42-$59

Info: timelinetheatre.com

Williams and director Malkia Stampley respond by brilliantly evoking McDaniel’s legacy. As the play begins, they introduce an audio clip of Mo’Nique, best supporting actress winner 70 years later for “Precious,” as she declares: “I’d like to thank Miss Hattie McDaniel for enduring all that she had to so that I would not have to.”

Working in the lounge, part of L.A.’s famous Ambassador Hotel, are two friends, Arthur (Charles Andrew Gardner), a bartender, and Dottie (Mildred Marie Langford), a maid; they left rural Alabama to follow their own dreams in the entertainment industry. Hoping to become the next Oscar Micheaux, Arthur already has a name for his first film project: “The Boulevard of Bold Dreams.” A talented singer, Dottie yearns for her big break. But for now, they’re stuck in day jobs, mired in the subservient existence of most working-class Blacks in the ’40s.

As Hattie (Gabrielle Lott-Rogers) enters the Ambassador (where Robert F. Kennedy would be assassinated 28 years later), she’s resigned. When the film had its premiere in a whites-only theater in Atlanta, she wasn’t invited. Now the film’s studio has crafted an acceptance speech, not trusting her to speak her own truth. She suspects she won’t be allowed to sit at the ceremony with the film’s white cast. Then comes the ultimate insult: She learns that she will have to sit by herself at a table in the back.

Good friends Dottie Hudson (Mildred Marie Langford) and Arthur Brooks (Charles Andrew Gardner) discover they have different ways of thinking about their life journeys in “Boulevard of Bold Dreams.”

Good friends Dottie Hudson (Mildred Marie Langford) and Arthur Brooks (Charles Andrew Gardner) discover they have different ways of thinking about their life journeys in “Boulevard of Bold Dreams.”

Joel Maisonet

When Hattie announces that she has decided to skip the Oscars, Arthur’s aghast. He begs her to reconsider: “You’ve accomplished things that most Negro folk can’t even imagine.” Dottie, however, goads Hattie to strike back at the white establishment.

Negative reaction has worn Hattie down. Groups like the NAACP urged her to refuse the role, criticizing the part as “a disgrace to colored folks.” Meanwhile, a Chicago Defender critic called the film’s depiction of Civil War-era society “a weapon of terror against black America.”

A dreamer himself, Williams wrote this play, his first major project, while living in his car. His dramatic flair, evident throughout, explodes in a scene where Hattie explains to a critical Dottie that she “takes on these maid roles with pride and responsibility”; she sees them as an homage to the Black experience, especially the ordeals of her mother, a former slave, and her sacrifices. As Dottie continues to argue, Hattie silences her with the retort: “I’d rather be a maid in movies than a maid in real life.”

All three actors excel and build dramatic tension smoothly over the play’s 90-minute running time. Gardner expertly shifts between personas, first as a servile barkeep while on the phone with his hotel overlord, then as an impromptu confidant, hopeful yet hardened by life. As Langford skillfully peels back layers of her character, she reveals the pain and sorrow that fuel her cynicism. With her beautifully nuanced portrayal, Lott-Rogers does the real Hattie McDaniel proud. She embodies the grace and dignity that allowed McDaniel to rise above constant affronts and disrespect.

The design team also deserves accolades, especially for the lighting, costumes, hair/makeup and projections. With its lovely Art Deco accents, the set is a sight to behold.

As the play closes, a clip of Hattie McDaniel’s actual Oscar speech is projected on the mirror above the bar. When she declares, “I shall always hold it as a beacon for anything that I may be able to do in the future,” it’s clear her beacon still burns bright decades later.

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