By the Way, Meet Vera Stark (Inquire at 2nd Stage. ASAP would be good)

From the overview at 2nd Stage’s website. . .

In a new comedy from the Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright of Ruined, Lynn Nottage draws upon the screwball films of the 1930’s to take a funny and irreverent look at racial stereotypes in Hollywood.  BY THE WAY, MEET VERA STARK is a seventy year journey through the life of Vera Stark, a headstrong African-American maid and budding actress, and her tangled relationship with her boss, a white Hollywood star desperately grasping to hold on to her career. When circumstances collide and both women land roles in the same Southern epic, the story behind the cameras leaves Vera with a surprising and controversial legacy scholars will debate for years to come.

. . .You would never know that what you’re about to see is a funny, sharp, multi-faceted and very meta production where the racial dynamics of old Hollywood in 1933 echo into the showbiz politics of 1973 as reflected in the academic study of Black Hollywood of 2003. Vera (Sanaa Lathan) and Gloria (Stephanie J. Block) are only part of the story – the rest is made up of a terrific trio – Daniel Breaker, as both a musician and chauffer and a scholarly MC; Kimberly Hébert Gregory as Vera’s actress-roommate and later a cultural commentator; and Karen Olivo, who wins the sharp contrast award for playing a Black woman passing for a Brazilian sexpot, an antebellum French emigré and a fatigues-clad lesbian poet and author in the space of two hours.

The first act unfolds was a plenty-interesting story of young Black actresses in Hollywood and the personas they will try on to get where they’re going – snappy, engaging, enjoyable. I wouldn’t have minded just living in 1933 with them for the second act as well, but Act 2 opened with the closing moments of the film our first-half-heroines worked on together (which was a terrific period parody of Gone with the Wind, Jezebel and any other Southern epic you could name, and a very nice multi-media touch). Just as you’re getting comfortable, the film is interrupted by the slightly officious tones of Mr. Breaker, welcoming us to his seminar on What Happened to Vera Stark, 70 years later. A quick segue to introduce his co-panelists, and we are watching  “a lost interview” with Vera, Gloria and some glam 70s rock’n’roll charicature (live-acted on a stage-on-a-stage).

If this all sounds confusing, just go see it and trust that in the moment it will all make sense. It more than makes sense – it resonates. Here we have a beloved work of fiction in which Vera set aside her dignity and apparently her integrity for screentime. We then have the final chapter in our heroine’s career – Vera promoting a Vegas engagement/comeback after a career that arched well short of her ambitions and talents. We finally have the ideal cultural panelist discussion – passionate, informed, and with prescripted time limits.

And what playwright Lynn Nottage achieves here is remarkable. (I could never leave out the creative team but I neglected to grab a program so let me just also praise the work of director Jo Bonney, the set designers, costumes and props, the lighting designers and the sound guys). Art and identity, and the cultural commentary on art and identity, and a still later review of that commentary AND the art and identity. All in one play. Without being so heavy handed you feel like you’re reviewing someone’s thesis, and with plenty of humor.

The exchanges between Breaker, Gregory and Olivo feel authentic and make you, privileged Knower Of Things Past, examine your own perception of Vera’s life and choices as you partially agree with the author, then the poet, and now with the centrist voice of reason… What was great about this most meta section of the play was the analysis of three dominant media narratives:

  • Vera Stark (and by implication, most Black actors of the 30s and 40s) played maids and Mammies, and personal sacrifices and motivations aside, is therefore responsible for some of the the (negative or limiting) portrayals and perceptions of Black women that persist today.
  • Vera Stark was a rebel, bursting through the confines of underwritten and poorly realized roles to defy the hegemonic culture of white Hollywood.
  • Vera Stark was a suffering soul, defeated by alcohol and relationship difficulties, trying to do the best she could in an era with few avenues for her – her career and personal life must be weighed in terms of her spoken and unspoken pain.

Even though we walked alongside Vera as she made her way from housekeeping to ….more cinematic housekeeping, we begin to lose our sense of why she was willing to accept a shucking and jiving role for the sake of being onscreen, waver in our certainty that she aimed to do more, as we hoped. To doubt, in short, that we had read her correctly.

And then Nottage comes to our rescue with a brief, sweet scene between Vera and Gloria. (Introduced by the neatest on-stage transition involving a scrim and the shadows of techs moving lighting gear ever.) The two are screen testing for the roles that will ultimately define them and talking quietly. Nottage takes this moment to assure us that whatever got lost in the journey from soundstage to celluloid Vera Stark was, well, starkly truthful.

See this play. It’s new. It’s unusual. It is written, directed and stars amazing women of color. Daniel Breaker sings a little (swoon).

It’s at 2nd Stage and it’s still in previews. So get yourself there.

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