BWW Reviews: BY THE WAY, MEET VERA STARK Reveals A Stark Reality
In By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, acclaimed dramatist Lynn Nottage (winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Ruined), has illuminated the irony and hurtful absurdity of the Black struggle in Depression-era Hollywood to break the chains of racial stereotyping and to land good roles with good lines. iTheatre Collaborative, a gem of a company in the heart of Phoenix boldly stages this play under the direction of Charles St. Clair and with a cast that artfully commands the stage.
It's a two-act play, essentially a prequel and a sequel to the legend of Vera Stark, whose meteoric but brief rise to fame is clouded by the mystery of her fade from the limelight.
In the first act, set in 1932, aspirations blossom into opportunity when Gloria Mitchell, "America's little sweetheart," has a shot at auditioning for the lead role in The Belle of New Orleans. Vera, the savvy and brassy housemaid to her self-indulgent and anxiety-ridden employer, senses that, if she plays her cards right, she can have her long-awaited breakthrough moment in tinseltown. But, she's not alone. Her roommates, Lottie McBride and Anna Mae Simpkins, aim to get in on the act as well. Everybody wants a role, and when the film's producer and director arrive, a brilliantly crafted comedy unfolds.
Nicole Belit is exquisite, endowing Vera with elegance, grace, and the self-assurance that was required to leap from handmaiden to film star. Hers is a tour de force performance, most notably when she seizes the moment to reveal her acting chops to the film's director, Maximilian Von Oster (Tom Koebel) and producer, Mr. Slasvick (Todd Michael Isaac).
Belit is not alone, though, in offering up some remarkable performances. Tyra Young's more worldly-wise Lottie is delicious and endearing as she shimmies and vocalizes and reenacts Juliet's Act 5 suicide.
Krystal Pope, likewise, is an equally gifted actress with a commanding stage presence, whose portrayal of the ambitious and tenacious Anna Mae is perfectly sculpted. This is one powerhouse actress!
Brenda Jean Foley oozes the narcissism and neuroticism of Gloria Mitchell while also capturing the essence of the self-proclaimed diva.
Mike Traylor. What can one say about this brilliant actor whose presence in this play adds a dynamic and essential element to Vera's story! As Leroy, the fast-talking smooth talking chauffeur, he has an eye for Vera matched by a sensibility about Vera's humanity.
The cast, save for Belit and Foley, does double-duty in the second act, a film symposium some eighty years later. In this present day retrospective of Vera Stark's career, Traylor returns to the stage as Herb, a wide-eyed nutty-type professor with a manic determination to unravel the mysteries of Vera Stark. He engages two panelists from different sides of the ideological street, dashiki-clad gender studies professor Carmen Levy-Green (Young) and tightly wound performance poet Afua Assata Ejobo (Pope), each of whom imposes their political perspective on Vera's career. They watch film segments from The Belle of New Orleans and old takes from Vera's and Gloria's final appearances on a TV talk show. Vera, as so many celebrities, becomes the fodder for post-mortem speculation.
As the retrospective ends, we are left to wonder where truth lies. What is the Stark reality? What became of Vera and why? Such are the questions with which the audience can wrestle, but what vividly clear is the masquerade that too many souls had to endure to make it on the yellow brick road to Hollywood fame. Here is Nottage's contribution ~ to compel us to consider the sad chapters of our evolution as a society and the costs of racism and stereotyping.