Is Oprah Winfrey a modern mammy? With her healthy build, wide smile and comforting message for the masses, Michelle Matlock thinks so and says as much in her onewoman show, “The Pride Project: The Evolution of African-

American Women,” which she performed Monday at Sharon High School.

The actress began researching the mammy icon several years ago and her show — a mixture of history, comedy

and thought-provoking drama — deconstructs the “legacy of racism, sexism and slavery” in America. The mammy image has existed for more than 100 years and though it might seem to have faded with the civil rights movement, Ms. Matlock points out that it is still here, “no matter how watered down.”

In fact, while Ms. Matlock was developing her show several years ago, she was called to audition for the role of Aunt

Jemima. Perhaps the most famous mammy of recent times, the pancake spokeswoman in her apron and bandana recalls painful memories for Ms. Matlock and other black women. “It’s time to cut the apron strings,” said one of many

songs about the subject incorporated into Ms. Matlock’s show. At the start of “The Pride Project,” Ms. Matlock gestures

to all the mammy memorabilia on stage and wishes “somebody’d just walk away with all my stuff.” She says she’s sick of “carrying around somebody else’s fantasies ... stereotypes, myths and lies.” They were handed down on the day she was born and given to her without permission, Ms. Matlock says. “This old stuff is out of style,” she says, and though she wants rid of it, she’ll keep a “bag of wisdom and a trunk of determination” from her experiences.

To some, mammy is a symbol of comfort. But to others, Ms. Matlock notes, she stands for decades of oppression.

“I can’t stop thinking about her. Who she was, where she came from …,” Ms. Matlock says. “Why do I even care?”

When she was in sixth grade, Ms. Matlock tells in her show, she wore a bandana to school and was instantly

called “Aunt Jemima.” When she graduated from high school, she swore she would never play the maid or

the nanny. Schooled in Shakespeare, Ms. Matlock was in many pieces during college and even played Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire.” So, during her senior year, another student’s excitement

at casting Ms. Matlock as mammy was not shared by the proud thespian. Ms. Matlock mentions Oscar- winner Hattie McDaniel, television darling Nell Carter and even Whoopi Goldberg as actresses who have played the role.

“I thought they had paved the way for me,” she says. “I just assumed this stereotype of mammy had disappeared.”

But it hasn’t, Ms. Matlock contends. She plays the mammy part to enlighten in “The Pride Project,” which delves back to

minstrel shows and the slave auction block in dealing with racial issues in America. People don’t talk about these things, Ms. Matlock said during a comment period after the show. And no one had ever really talked about the mammy icon, so she thought it was time someone did.

The main goal of “The Pride Project” is to open lines of communication and help people “find ways to fill the gap between our differences,” Ms. Matlock said. “I want the audience to walk away with open minds and open hearts.”

Besides the vignettes in which she plays herself, perhaps the most compelling parts of the show are when

Ms. Matlock takes on the role of Nancy Green, the first “Aunt Jemima” who told stories and flipped pancakes at

the World’s Fair in 1893.

In her portrayal, Aunt Jemima sings “Mammy’s little baby loves shortnin’ ” while extolling the virtues of a pancake

mix that’s “just like having a slave, but in a box.” Ms. Green was born a slave in Kentucky and traveled to Chicago to find the babies taken from her while she still lived on the plantation. The “Aunt Jemima” gig was a good job that allowed

her to keep searching for her kids (she was hit by a car in 1923 as she crossed a Chicago street to introduce herself

to the son she finally found), but backlash from the African-American community left Ms. Green questioning

herself and the movement. “When emancipation come and we ‘posed to be free … I didn’t feel free,” Ms. Matlock

says as Ms. Green. “They running around talking about rights and freedom … they don’t know.” Ms. Matlock uses the

words of many luminaries from American history, including Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, Halle Q. Brown, James Baldwin and Booker T. Washington, to illustrate her point. Mostly, it’s a question of self-respect.

After she delivers a powerful speech about how the mammy icon — created to make America feel better about itself — with her face sticking out from a giant box of pancake mix, Ms. Matlock looks around and slowly steps to the front of the stage. “I will always step outside of this box and be free to use my own imagination,” she says. “We can pave a new

road. Fantasies only live as long as you let them.” “The Pride Project” was presented by UPMC Horizon.