The Mammy Project
Last night Culturebot went to the opening night of Michelle Matlock’s The Mammy Project at The Bindlestiff Family Cirkus’ Palace of Variety. It’s a very enjoyable and engaging show, exploring the history and persistence of the “Mammy” icon in American Culture.
Culturebot first saw an excerpt of The Mammy Project at P.S. 122’s Avant-Garde-Arama last year. That excerpt started with a humorous poetic monologue called “Baggage” which segued into a riff on Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life. Michelle takes a scene in which the “colored” maid arrives on a white woman’s doorstep looking for work and and turns it into an arch, sultry, lesbian come-on.
Since last year, The Mammy Project has evolved considerably. The “Baggage” and “Imitation of Life” sequences remain, but are now incorporated into an hour-long show that imagines the life and times of Nancy Green – the first woman to ever play the part of Aunt Jemima. Through song, monologue, poetry and movement, Matlock follows Nancy Green from slavery to freedom, to accepting the job as Aunt Jemima pitchwoman at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, to trying to find the children taken from her when she was a slave.
Along the way Matlock performs a number of characters and speeches, giving insight into the history of the African-American struggle, especially in the early days after emancipation. By telling the story as Nancy Green, she allows us to hear the speeches of Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass and Halle Q. Brown from the perspective of someone who is both of the time and separate from it. Nancy, by taking the job of Aunt Jemima, is participating in her own oppression, but also achieving economic freedom she could never have imagined as a slave. This narrative device is a great way to demonstrate the Catch-22 of the struggle for freedom and acceptance in America.
The story of Nancy Green is interspersed with other characters and scenarios: a white woman fondly displaying her array of “Mammy” Collectibles and wistfully longing for days gone by, a slave auction from the perspective of the auctioneer and then again from the frightened young female slave being sold, a minstrel show, a radio advertisement and a very clever sequence at the end with an oversized box of “Mammy” brand pancake batter. I don’t want to give it away, but it’s a very funny gag which brings the whole narrative into the present day – taking on some of the most prominent Mammy-icons in current popular culture.
Matlock uses her prodigious skills as a performer and her background in clowning to create a performance piece that is insightful, moving and illuminating while largely avoiding the pitfalls of being preachy. Racism in America has been, and continues to be, a pernicious problem. And discussing it in the theater is a tricky business. Matlock succeeds where others fall short because of her affability as a performer and because of her ability to invite us into the experience as participants, not merely as audience members. The Mammy Project is a smart, funny and moving performance from a very talented actress.
The Mammy Project @
The Palace of Variety
125 West 42nd Street
Every Monday @ 8pm Starting January 19 and
Every Sunday @5pm Starting February 1
Through February 29th
15 dollars @ the door