AURORA | Aurora Fox Theater’s current production of “Hi-Hat Hattie” is the definition of why it pays to have patience as an audience member.
The biographical one-woman show retells the life of Denver native Hattie McDaniel, whose role as Mammy in “Gone with the Wind” led to her becoming the first African-American to win an Academy Award. “Hi-Hat Hattie” lets McDaniel, played by Anna High, tell the audience her life’s story while mixing in some classic blues and jazz tunes from the turn of the 20th century.
McDaniel was born the youngest child of 13 to two former slaves and from a young age had a penchant for performing. Any clip of McDaniel’s on the Internet can attest to her immense talent. But finding a place to perform as a black woman in a racially segregated society was a daily struggle, one that took its toll on McDaniel throughout her life.
For the first act of the show, High catches the audience up on McDaniel’s life and shows off her stunning voice. While at times the first act lands a little flat as stops along the way in McDaniel’s life are recounted, listening to High perform musical classics like “St. Louis Blues,” “Amazing Grace,” and “Danny Boy” sell the show all by itself. Her voice fills the Fox and shows why she’s regarded as one of the best vocal talents in the Denver area.
High’s enthusiasm in the role and amazing voice help keep the audience involved in the show long enough for the true emotional punch of the story to land in the second act. Because while the first act at times can seem tedious as a history lecture, it’s the second act all the groundwork in the first act truly pays off.
When McDaniel was working to make a career in a segregated country, the only roles available to her and other African Americans were that of the servant or the savage. As a child of former slaves, McDaniel believed that she was portraying her people as best she could and brought a level of dignity to the parts.
But as the civil rights movement began to make inroads in the country and the characterization of African Americans as merely servants to white characters began to draw criticism, McDaniel became a prime target for civil rights leaders. Her roles in movies and theater, and as Aunt Jemima in commercials, was seen as being an example of selling out her fellow African Americans for a paycheck. As the criticism mounted, McDaniel’s ability to work as an actor and singer, her whole reason for living at that point in her life, dried up.
“Hi-Hat Hattie” doesn’t let McDaniel have an easy answer for whether she’s betrayed her race by taking the roles that made her famous. A pioneer that had to struggle her whole life to break through color barriers just to be given a chance, McDaniel then fell victim to the progress she and others helped bring about.
It’s in those internal struggles that High and this show gleam. The show shines bright in many ways, but High earns her own accolades staring in a role that reveals why Denver’s own McDaniel deserved hers.
“Hi-Hat Hattie” at the Aurora Fox Theater.
Playing now until Dec. 23. Thur.-Sat. 7:30 p.m.; Sun. 2 p.m.
Admission starts at $33.
Discounts available for students, seniors and military. For tickets, visit aurorafoxartscenter.org/afac/hattie