BWW Review: Lynn Nottage's Show-Biz Social Satire BY THE WAY, MEET VERA STARK Gets a Terrific Revival
It was only eight years ago when two-time Pulitzer winner Lynn Nottage's terrific show-biz social satire, By the Way, Meet Vera Stark was first seen Off-Broadway, but director Kamilah Forbes' crackling good new mounting for Signature Theatre makes for a welcome return.
The playwright's fictional story takes its inspiration from the groundbreaking work of early black film actors, primarily Hattie McDaniel and Theresa Harris, whose success helped open doors for a more inclusive Hollywood, despite being limited to playing roles within the tight boundaries of white viewers' comfort zones.
The first act, played in the style of 1930s screwball comedy, begins in the fabulous home of platinum blonde screen star Gloria Mitchell (hilariously vain and dimwitted Jenni Barber) who has outgrown her image as "America's Little Sweetie Pie" and is desperate to save her career with a great serious acting role.
Her big chance comes with an audition to star as a dying octoroon mistress in a surefire classic period drama, "The Belle of New Orleans." An old southern epic generally meant employment for black actors as slaves ("Slaves with lines!" excitedly exclaims one character), but Gloria's maid, Vera Stark (warm and resourceful Jessica Frances Dukes), who is also an actor, notices that the screenplay has a significantly large and non-stereotypical role as the leading lady's black maid and confidant.
When Gloria throws a party to kiss up to the studio head (David Turner), Vera also tries to get noticed as she serves the guests. Helping out that evening, and also looking for a role, is her roommate, Lottie (outspoken and comical Heather Alicia Simms), a former Broadway showstopper who on the left coast is regulated to playing gospel-singing plantation workers. Another roommate, Anne Mae (perfectly over-the-top sensual Carra Patterson), is light-skinned enough to pass herself off as a Brazilian bombshell and arrives as the date of the film's haughty German director (Manoel Felciano). Also on hand is studio chauffer, Leroy Barksdale (slick and charismatic Warner Miller), a musician and aspiring composer looking for a break.
Upon hearing that the director intends to cast the slave roles, not with actors, but with "Negroes who have felt the burden of hard unmerciful labor" ("I vant to see hundred years of oppression in the hunch of their shoulders."), Vera and Lottie start taking on the stereotypical characteristics of what he considers to be realistic. It's a very funny moment, but one that also speaks to the absurdly misguided Hollywood view of race.
The film clip from "The Belle of New Orleans" that begins Act II shows that Gloria and Vera were indeed cast in the roles and that Vera was allowed to give a beautifully compelling dramatic performance.
As the lights go up, it's 2003 and we're at a colloquium titled "Rediscovering Vera Stark, the legacy of The Belle of New Orleans." Our flamboyantly passionate filmmaker host (Miller), explains that Vera's performance was regarded as a landmark portrayal, displaying her ability to subvert the stereotypical black roles of her time.
He and his guest panelists, an intensely artsy poet/performer (Patterson) and a condescendingly cerebral university professor (Simms) offer commentary and analysis on Stark's last public appearance, a guest spot on a 1973 television talk show, which is played out live.
As the TV host, Turner brings to mind the hip pop journalism of David Frost. Felciano plays another guest, a mod British rocker.
Dukes is unrecognizable as the forty years older Vera, a cynical dose of reality who was wasted by an industry that had no outlet for her abilities. The two men gush over her and an embarrassing reunion is set up with surprise guest Gloria. The three white celebrities trying keeping the segment entertaining, oblivious to the importance of allowing Vera to tell her story on a national platform.
While watching, the 21st Century trio discusses what became of her career and pompously speculate on certain aspects of her life that include a secret the theatre audience is aware of that has not been revealed publicly in the world of the play. It seems the exploitation of these self-promoters is the legacy of the artist that will be remembered, and it appears unlikely that future generations will get a chance to truly meet Vera Stark.