The Mammy Project
Michelle Nicole Matlock’s one-woman show, The Mammy Project, is a provocative piece of theater that entertains and educates through a series of vignettes that deconstructs the controversial history of the Mammy stereotype.
Matlock builds her show around two stories - the life of Nancy Green, a former slave who was hired as the first-ever Aunt Jemima for the World’s Fair in 1893, and Matlock’s own experiences as a full-figured African-American actress who thought she’d never have to play the part of the mammy-maid in today’s entertainment business, but found herself getting cast in those roles anyway (Matlock actually auditioned for an Aunt Jemima commercial, but didn’t get the part because they wanted someone “more motherly”). From there, Matlock takes the audience on a journey through the life of the Mammy stereotype via a series of scenes - some shocking, some outright hysterical and some devilishly both.
One particularly powerful segment has Matlock portraying an auctioneer selling a “slave of dreams,” “a mild mannered maid (who) only knows how to smile…with prize-chocolate milk on tap for the young’uns.” This scene alone is disturbing enough, but then Matlock steps up on the auction block and replays the scene acting as the slave that was just sold. Grinning but clearly terrified, she displays her shackled hands to the prospective buyers. The theater is in complete silence. There are no sound effects. There is no speaking. The audience is completely uncomfortable, and that is absolutely how it should be.
There are plenty of serious scenes that make you want to squirm in your seat, but Matlock also uses laughter throughout much of the show to educate and enlighten by surprise. She mocks the Mammy stereotypes portrayed in the media – Hattie McDaniels scolds Scarlett for “sucking dick,” Imitation of Life’s Louise Beavers becomes a red bustier-clad stripping lesbian, even Oprah, the “corporate mammy” doesn’t escape unscathed:
You’ll constantly be looking for me wherever you go…You might even start lookin’ for me in one of them TV talk shows. Oh yes, I’ll tell you stories and sing you songs…I’ll tell ya what to buy and what not to buy. What books to read. You will cry and cry.
You do laugh, but you gasp too, because Matlock has made you see something you never saw before, and that’s always a little scary-wonderful.
Matlock’s show makes you realize how embedded the Mammy stereotype is in our culture and how it has, like so many stereotypes, simultaneously been a source of subjugation and empowerment. Nancy Green drew criticism from the African-American intelligentsia for her portrayal of Aunt Jemima because it perpetuated the Mammy myth, but it provided her with the financial independence a former slave might never have experienced otherwise. I’m not an African-American woman, but based on what I heard in the talk-back session after the show, many young African-American women still feel the pull of this contradiction in their own lives. Matlock’s show confronts the audience with this predicament, provides no easy answers, but invites the audience step out of the box and “pave a new road. Cuz fantasies,” Aunt Jemima says, “only live as long as you let them.”