BWW Review: BY THE WAY, MEET VERA STARK at Lyric Stage Company
By the Way, Meet Vera Stark
Written by Lynn Nottage, Directed by Summer L.Williams; Scenic Design, David Towlun; Costume Design, Tyler Kinney; Lighting Design, Franklin Meissner, Jr.; Sound Design, Ed Young; Assistant Sound Designer, Andrew Duncan Will; Film and Media Design, Johnathan Carr; Dialect Coach, Nina Zendejas; Production Stage Manager, Robin Grady; Assistant Stage Manager, Samantha Setayesh
An impressive acting ensemble, incisive direction, and a magical blending of live performance and cinematic images are the highlights of the New England premiere of By the Way, Meet Vera Stark at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage (Ruined, 2008) heads in a very different direction in her latest outing, coming back with a screwball comedy that delves into the racism faced by African-American actresses in Hollywood across a span of seventy years.
The fact that Vera Stark is a comedy belies the heft of the story it tells and the depth of the historical detail that Nottage weaves in to accurately portray Tinsel Town in 1933, 1973, and 2003. In act one, Vera (Kami Rushell Smith) is an outspoken African-American maid and wannabe actress who works for Gloria Mitchell (Hannah Husband), a white actress trying to secure a role in a hot new motion picture, a Southern epic entitled "The Belle of New Orleans." Vera would like nothing better than to be cast in the role of Tilly, maid to the protagonist, despite her misgivings about the limited opportunities offered to blacks in the white-dominated industry.
Nottage puts forth her views on the subject in an animated conversation between Vera and her roommate Lottie (Lyndsay Allyn Cox) who has forsaken her goal of becoming a movie star as the movies have forsaken her. Although neither of the women is keen on the idea of playing a maid or a slave, they are realists who understand their choices. As Oscar-winner Hattie McDaniel (Gone With the Wind) infamously said, "I'd rather make $700 a week playing a maid than $7 a week being one." If Vera and Lottie have to sing the blues or act downtrodden, they'll do it to be able to do what they love. Much to their chagrin, their friend Anna Mae (Kris Sidberry) pursues an alternate path, dating the film's Russian director (Gregory Balla) while passing herself off as a Latina from Rio de Janeiro.
Their paths are in sharp contrast to that of Gloria who is indistinctly related to Vera. The two appeared together in Vaudeville as youngsters; nevertheless, their careers diverge in Hollywood, strictly due to racial prejudice, owing little or nothing to talent. Even when the studio head (Kelby T. Akin) catches Vera doing a sassy little song and dance (that showcases Smith's musical theater skills) when she thinks no one is watching, his inclination is to "borrow" her name rather than offer her a job. She and Lottie draw the director's attention when they put on a display that fits his stereotype of "real" Negroes and Vera gets her start in the movies.
The second act fast forwards to 2003 and an academic seminar, led by a trio of pretentious "experts," focusing on her career. Lecturer Herb (Terrell Donnell Sledge) excitedly shows a tape of Vera's appearance on a 1973 talk show, frequently interrupting it to share his insights or ask for comments from the traditional scholar Carmen Levy-Green (Cox) and fiery lesbian writer Afua Assata Ejobo (Sidberry), two women at opposite ends of the cultural spectrum. Costume Designer Tyler Kinney did his homework to come up with the outfits for these two segments, and David Towlun really nails the '70s sensibility in his scenic design.
Nottage writes complex characters that are fully realized by the wonderful cast, most of whom switch roles at intermission. In the first act, Sledge appears as Leroy Barksdale, a smooth musician who falls for Vera, but doesn't agree with her artistic choice. Balla's conversion from the Erich von Stroheim-type movie director to a loosey-goosey British rock star on the talk show is hysterical, and Akin seamlessly transitions from stressed out, bicarbonate-chugging producer to vapid talk show host. Smith and Husband play Vera and Gloria throughout, but face different challenges as their characters are shown forty years later. In addition, they play Vera and Gloria playing Maria and Tilly in an eight-minute black and white clip of the fictional 1933 antebellum film.
Summer L. Williams makes her directorial debut at the Lyric Stage with a flourish. She draws nuanced performances from the ensemble, and finds a way to artistically balance the technical and live components. Film and Media Designer Johnathan Carr puts his stamp on the production, evoking the feeling of the way movies were shot in the '30s, and Franklin Meissner, Jr.'s lighting design is most effective switching back and forth between the seminar and the talk show. Edward Young gives us just the right level of audience laughter and applause during the latter. Returning to the Lyric after her demanding assignment for Stones in His Pockets, Nina Zendejas is once again the Dialect Coach.
By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, which debuted Off-Broadway in 2011, wisely uses comedy to examine the challenges and unfairness of the treatment of actresses of color. Its structure affords a mix of entertainment and edification, showing how things were in act one, and then studying and discussing it in the second act. There are a couple of incidents of speechifying, and both the talk show segment and the film clip feel overlong, but it is a good play that is well-written and makes its points. You'll be happy to make acquaintance with Vera and company.