Review - By The Way, Meet Vera Stark
While older plays can often be interpreted to suit modern tastes and standards, films serve as permanent records of the public attitudes of their times; particularly when considering the ways ethnic minorities were portrayed. Many a fine film from long ago can contain moments that strike the modern eye as racist, even in cases where the intention was to be racially sensitive. In the case of black actors from early Hollywood, we can admire the talent of the likes of Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Butterfly McQueen and Stepin Fetchit and say they opened door for others, but many have argued that their success came from demeaning their race as a whole by taking the types of roles that were within the white viewers' comfort zones.
Lynn Nottage's very clever satire, By The Way, Meet Vera Stark, examines the issue through the eyes of aspiring black actors of the 1930s and those who study and interpret their lives in contemporary times. Director Jo Bonney and an excellent ensemble hilariously spoof the racial attitudes of three distinct American eras without undercutting the tragic aspects of the story.
Act one is snappily played as a 1930s screwball comedy, designed by Neil Patel (sets), ESosa (costumes) and Jeff Croiter (lights) with period elegance heightened just enough to a farcical level. But the plot is one the studios would never offer. The dimwitted Hollywood starlet, Gloria Mitchell (Stephanie J. Block, very funny as an actress of limited talent), aware that she's outgrowing her moniker as "America's Little Sweetie Pie," is preparing to audition for the starring role of a dying octoroon mistress in the surefire classic period drama, The Belle of New Orleans.
An old southern epic generally means employment for black actors as slaves, but Gloria's maid, Vera Stark (Sanaa Lathan), who is also an actress, notices that the film 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 Garrison), 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 (a brash Kimberly Hebert Gregory), who specializes as gospel-singing plantation workers. Another roommate, Anne Mae (a comically sexual Karen Olivo), is light-skinned enough to pass herself off as a Brazilian bombshell, and arrives as the date of the film's haughty German director (Kevin Isola). Also on hand is studio chauffer, Leroy Barksdale (smooth and slick Daniel Breaker), 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 us that Gloria and Vera were indeed cast in the roles and we further discover that Vera's performance was regarded as a landmark portrayal. We're at a 2003 colloquium titled Rediscovering Vera Stark, the legacy of The Belle of New Orleans, where a flamboyantly passionate filmmaker host (Breaker) and his guests, a conservatively mannered university professor (Gregory) and an in-your-face journalist/poet/performer (Olivo), watch and comment on Stark's last public appearance on a 1973 television talk show.
Upstage from the trio, acting out a video clip, are Garrison as a Mike Douglas-type host and Isola as another guest, a rowdy British rocker, fawning over the hardened, somewhat inebriated icon who is more interested in promoting her own agenda than discussing the past. Lathan makes an extraordinary turn from spunky heroine in the first act to this cynical mess who was wasted by an industry that had no outlet for her abilities.
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's both comical and infuriating to see the memory of Vera Stark documented by self-promoting researchers who would celebrate her legacy to help increase sales of their books.