Before there was a Sidney Poitier, a Denzel Washington, a Morgan Freeman or a Halle Berry, there was Hattie McDaniel. In the engaging bio-musical Hattie … What I Need to Know, Vickilyn Reynolds honors the life of this extraordinary entertainer, who in 1940 became the first African-American to win an Oscar with her performance as Mammy in Gone With the Wind.
Fittingly, the show opens with a video of that historic evening, after which Reynolds (who bears a noticeable resemblance to McDaniel) appears onstage and, for two hours, does a beguiling job of bringing McDaniel to life. Reynolds' script covers a lot of ground and could use some tightening, and at times her loose, conversational style distracts and meanders.
Still, she and director Byron Nora succeed in making McDaniel's story an entertaining experience, recounting her early days singing in a gospel choir; difficulties with her overprotective parents; a string of unhappy marriages; struggles with racism in and outside of Hollywood; and her slow, determined rise to success, which ultimately placed her in the friendly company of stars like Clark Gable, Mae West, Bing Crosby and Marlene Dietrich.
As interesting as this all is, the real payoff is hearing Reynolds sing the selection of jazz, blues and gospel songs with commanding artistry and passion.

Fridays, Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Starts: Jan. 5. Continues through Feb. 3, 2013

LA Weekly