The resemblance is not merely striking — it’s uncanny.
Sitting across the table from actress Vickilyn Reynolds as she sips on green tea at a Starbucks in Culver City, it’s like looking into the face of Hattie McDaniel, the first black actor to win an Academy Award (best actress in a supporting role). McDaniel won the coveted statuette in 1940 for her portrayal of Scarlett O’Hara’s sassy nursemaid, Mammy, in the iconic film Gone With The Wind.
In a few days Reynolds, who has a bit of sass herself, will bring the full-bodied, fiery, trailblazing actress to life in her one-woman musical, Hattie”¦What I Need You To Know!, set for its Hollywood premiere on Jan. 11 at Theatre Asylum in Hollywood. Previews begin Saturday.
Reynolds gained weight for the role of McDaniel, but she jokingly admits she “got fatter than Hattie.” Still, she’s like a proud mother when she talks about what has become her signature show.
Hattie… takes a walk through McDaniel’s life by honoring and paying tribute to her accomplishments, which included being the first African American actress to star in a radio series (CBS’s The Beulah Show in 1947) and appearing in more than 300 films (although, according to the play, she was credited with only 80). It’s written and produced by Reynolds, presented by Matthew Quinn’s Combined Artform and A. Lee Reynolds, and directed by Byron Nora.
McDaniel’s popularity grew as she portrayed maids in several films. Her film role choices didn’t sit well with some of the era’s progressive blacks, the media and the NAACP. She was accused of being a sellout to her race by perpetuating a negative stereotype.
To her naysayers, McDaniel has been credited as coining the phrase, “I’d rather play a maid and make $700 a week than be a maid and make $7.” Â Another version of her response: “I’d rather play a maid than be one.”
Adding honey to her tea, Reynolds, who now goes to a trainer three times a week to shed some of the excess weight, smiles a smile that stretches from one end of her face to the next as she readies herself to talk about the show. However, she makes a slight detour. “I’m getting cute,” she says. “I have a waist again. I was not the one for exercise. I don’t even run from muggers.” She laughs a hearty laugh before getting back on track.
Her eyes start to sparkle as she begins to talk about how she came to reincarnate the legendary Hattie McDaniel. The story Reynolds spins about how and why she began developing the show warrants its own production.
“This project has been given to me by God,” says Reynolds matter-of-factly. “I truly believe that.Â I feel like one of my destinies is to portray Hattie McDaniel.”
Years ago, according to Reynolds, her brother, Tony-winning actor Ron Richardson (Jim in Big River), who died in 1995, told her she should portray McDaniel.
“I had no interest in playing McDaniel because I thought she was a sellout to the race,” explains Reynolds, who just recently completed a screenplay about McDaniel with her writing partner, Ron Main. “But, my brother encouraged me to pursue it. I was wrong about her. She was an incredible woman. She was very smart.”
According to Reynolds, actor Larry Riley (A Soldier’s Story/Knots Landing) told her that if no one approached her to play the role of McDaniel, she should write a play herself. Riley died in 1992.
“These two men who are gone left me with that,” says Reynolds. “I was blown away. I began to do research on Hattie in 1997. There weren’t many bios on her. What I came to realize is that she was a trailblazer. She was before her time. What other roles could she play at the time? That’s what started me off. Eventually, my husband (producer Albert Reynolds) gave me a laptop and said, “˜Go at it.’”
She got confirmation that she was heading in the right direction after she revealed to a friend that she was writing a show about McDaniel. The friend informed her that his business partner was also a partner of McDaniel’s nephew Edgar Goff, who lived in Los Angeles.
“We became friends,” says Reynolds, who had moved to Los Angeles from Philadelphia in 1988 to appear in George Wolfe’s The Colored Museum at the Mark Taper Forum (she had also appeared in the 1986 Colored Museum at New York Public Theater). “Edgar’s wife, Mableline Collins, and I also became friends. We started writing two of the songs (Kenny Long is also a lyricist on the two songs) in my play. Edgar passed away last year. Having that connection helped me with things I didn’t know, like how intelligent she was and how she was a civil rights activist.”
Reynolds, whose credits include the national tour of Bring In “˜Da Noise, Bring In “˜Da Funk and Mama I Want To Sing, said it took her seven years to write the play and the music.
After all the pieces seemed to come together and before starting production, Reynolds, wanting to seal the deal, went to McDaniel’s gravesite at Rosedale Cemetery (now Angelus Rosedale Cemetery) to get permission from the deceased actress to tell her story. McDaniel, who was married four times, died of breast cancer in 1952 at the age of 57.
“I went and laid down on her grave and asked her some questions,” explains Reynolds. “I had a whole list of questions for her. I asked her things like, “˜I’m going to do this and I want to know if it’s alright with you?’Â I would get different vibrations to let me know whether I was going in the right direction. I asked her what it is she wanted people to know. That’s why the show is called, Hattie”¦What I Want You To Know!”
To be clear, Reynolds doesn’t consider what she does on stage a performance per se. She believes she actually becomes McDaniel.
“She knows how to touch you inside when she turns into Hattie McDaniel,” says Reynolds’ husband and co-producer, Albert Reynolds. “It’s like Hattie was inside the same room.”
“I’m not there,” declares the actress, whose big, booming, bluesy voice is featured in the show. “That’s not me on stage. A lot of people tell me I channel her. That’s the feedback I’ve gotten. I pray before going on stage and I just talk to Hattie. I say, “˜I’m going out here girl. I need you with me.’”
Working on Hattie”¦.What I Need You To Know has been a cathartic and eye-opening experience for Reynolds.
“The whole journey has been incredible,” she says. “I’ve learned so much. It’s been 13 years altogether. I’ve learned so much about myself and other people, like who my friends are. God has been preparing me for something.”
Some of what Reynolds learned about herself, while researching McDaniel, wasn’t pretty.
“I learned that I had a great deal of self-hatred being a dark-skinned and heavy-set woman,” says Reynolds, who momentarily loses her contagious smile.Â “That was the reason I didn’t like Hattie so much. It’s true. It changed when I started reading her story and how she had so much self-confidence and how she could struggle through all the hatred in her life and how she was a sex symbol in her time. I became a better person from getting into the heart of this story.”
The Theatre Asylum version of the show will be Reynolds’ fourth time performing the role. It was previously mounted in Colorado, Harlem and at Stage 52 in Los Angeles. The production has changed over the years, according to Reynolds.
“In Denver, I had people come on as silhouettes and do voice-overs,” she explains. “In New York I did it with a seven-member cast. Here in LA, I’m doing a complete one-woman show.”
Reynolds says she made changes over the years after listening to critics whose words she respected and took to heart.
“Some of their observations were good,” says Reynolds.Â “They made the show better. I listened to reviewers and I could see their point, which is hard sometimes. I directed the show in New York and in Denver. I don’t like doing that. You can’t see yourself. You don’t have the proper perspective, so how can you correct it? I depended on the New York Times review and Denver Post review.”
The Los Angeles show was nominated for two 22nd NAACP Theatre Awards, including best local one-person show ““Â for Reynolds (she didn’t win) and a nomination for Sammie Wayne, who won for best lighting – local.
“Vickilyn and I have known each other for years,” says Wayne, a director and actor (Anna Lucasta/Camp Logan), who is not designing the lights for this production due to another commitment. “She asked me to design her lights the first time after she’d seen my work on Loretta Devine’s one woman show (Pieces of Me). Hattie is a good show and Vickilyn is incredible on stage.”
A Natural Woman
Reynolds says she didn’t seek showbiz as much as showbiz sought her — she simply surrendered to the inevitable.
“I’m telling you I had no control over it,” explains Reynolds. “My brothers pulled me along into showbiz. When I started doing research for this show, I realized Hattie’s and my life have so many parallels. Her brother brought her into showbiz and taught her everything. So did mine. Her brother died at 35, mine at 43.”
While growing up in Philadelphia, Reynolds was influenced by her two brothers, Richardson and her older brother, W. Franklin Richardson, senior pastor at Grace Baptist Church in Mount Vernon, NY.
“All of us would watch all the musicals and any kind of variety shows that came on television,” says Reynolds.
At the age of four, she began singing at Community Baptist Church. While attending Overbrook High School, Reynolds signed with Philadelphia International Records as a member of the group, City Limits, with which she recorded many songs for TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia) tracks. The group disbanded.Â About a week before she planned to move to Williamsburg, Penn., to attend nursing school, Reynolds received a call to join a singing group called New Day.
“After they called, I packed my bags immediately and went to Pittsburgh,” says Reynolds. “I called my mom and said, “˜I don’t want to be a nurse, I want to go into showbiz.’ She said, “˜Vickilyn, it’s your life. I just want you to be the best.’”
In between showbiz gigs, Reynolds worked as an assistant to the vice president of Warner Amex (now defunct) and as a secretary at Anderson Exterminating Company. She and her brother owned Golden Crown Limousine Service in New York where she was the CEO. While in New York, Reynolds produced a three-year run of the Vickilyn Review at the Greenwich Village Preacher’s Café.
She has appeared on television (Kate & Allie, American Dreams, When Do We Eat? and 227) and in films (I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, Crossing Delancey). She studied with Marlon Brando for the documentary Lying for a Living.
In 1988, while doing The Colored Museum, Reynolds was approached by a Columbia Studios exec who asked if she was going to return home to Philadelphia after the run.
“I said, “˜Not if you give me a television show,” says Reynolds. “Soon thereafter, I was on the show Sugar and Spice with Loretta Devine.”
The show was short-lived and was cancelled, says Reynolds, without so much as a phone call.
“We learned the show had been cancelled in the newspaper and on the radio,” says Reynolds. “That’s cold. That’s Hollywood.”
That momentary bump didn’t make Reynolds lose focus.
“You just pick yourself up and move on to the next thing,” says Reynolds.
For her efforts, Reynolds has garnered many accolades and awards.
She was part of the ensemble that received an Ovation Award for Bring In “˜Da Noise, Bring In “˜Da Funk at the Ahmanson Theatre. She received a 2005 Telly Award for the short film, Tiffany at Breakfast, and a 2007 Denver Ovation Award nomination for best actress in a musical for Hattie, among other honors and nominations.Â In 2008, she received the 2008 AUDELCO Award for outstanding performance in a musical/female for Hattie”¦ What I Need You To Know!
“I like awards,” says Reynolds. “I’m appreciative, but it’s not why I do my work.
Reynolds has done television, film, music and theater.
“Film is a lot of hurry up and wait,” says Reynolds. “I’m not crazy about film. Television is OK. It doesn’t do anything for me one way or the other. Singing, especially spiritual gospel music, comes from a whole other place. I get a great deal of satisfaction and comfort from singing. With acting, I’m able to express myself, maybe not as Vickilyn, but I can through characters.”
It’s clear that theater is where she feels the most at home.
“I love theater because you get to be whoever you want to be,” says Reynolds. “ I love everything about it. I love rehearsing. I love that even with this show, I can do it over and over and still find something new. Theater helps me to communicate. I was shy. My brother (Ron) brought me into this business. When I was little I would think I was going to be Miss America. I would make my hair out of nylon stockings and the paper would be a gown. We’d put on shows in my mother’s hair salon. Those were good times.”
The actress now lives in Pico Rivera with her husband of 33 years, Albert Reynolds, and their two sons Albert II, 31, and Vincent Ellis, 20.Â She also has a five-year-old grandson, Tyrell.
“I used to try to do everything for the show, but I’ve let go of some of that now,” says Reynolds. “Now I can breathe because my husband, who is my best friend, is by my side and I’ve also brought other people on board to help me.”
“I think working with my wife, you have to be perfect, well, almost,” says Albert Reynolds. “It’s because she likes to give you a great show.Â It’sÂ easy most of the time.”
When Reynolds first met his wife, he says he didn’t notice the resemblance to Hattie McDaniel.
“I never knew of Hattie McDaniel at that time,” he says. “But I know her now. I think I’ve been married to her for the last 13 years.”
The actress is optimistic about her future and is excited about the possibilities.
“There is no limit to what I can do,” says Reynolds. “I’m looking forward to everything. But, right now, at this moment, I’m living my dream.”
Hattie”¦What I Need You To Know!, Theatre Asylum, 6320 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood 90038. Opens Jan. 11. Fri-Sat 8 pm; Sun 3 pm. Through Feb. 3. Tickets: $20-$40. www.HattieWhatINeedYouToKnow.com.Print