May 11, 2011

"By the Way, Meet Vera Stark" is Only a Partially Satisfying Encounter with the Past

My husband K and I recently saw a movie called “Baby Face.” The New York Times had said it was a great example of how progressive some movies had been before the Hayes Code clamped down in 1934 (click here toread more about the film). The movie starred Barbara Stanwyck but we thought the standout performance came from a black actress named Theresa Harris who played her maid.  But this maid wasn’t the traditional, sassy mammy that so many black actresses were forced to play in those days. She was good-looking, soft-spoken and dressed almost as chicly as Stanwyck. K and I wondered who this woman was, how she got the part and what had happened to her. 

Lynn Nottage, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Ruined, discovered the movie earlier than we did but she apparently asked herself the same questions.  The answers she came up with fuel her new play By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, which opened at Second Stage Theatre on Sunday.

By the Way, Meet Vera Stark isn’t a staged bio.  Harris’ real life (she went on to marry a doctor and raise a family) turned out differently from the fictional Stark’s.  And the play isn’t a hand-wringing melodrama either. Instead, Nottage has whipped up a smart social satire that, at least under Jo Bonney’s clever direction, is often laugh-out-loud funny.

When people used to ask black actresses why they took the demeaning job of playing a maid in the movies, the actresses often answered that it was better to play one than be one.  Vera, however, does both.

As the play opens, she’s scheming to get a role as a slave in an upcoming antebellum epic, which, as she and her friends know, means lots of parts for black actors and maybe even a few with lines. But Vera also works a day job as the maid to a movie star who’s angling for the lead role in that same film. 

It’s not too much of a spoiler to say that both women get what they want because the fun lies in how they do it. And the larger surprises lie in the second act, which deals with what happens after their dubious success.

Bonney has staged the show as though all the action were happening on a movie set.  Neil Patel’s stage design is intentionally over-the-top tacky and flimsy-looking in the way that the old movie backdrops so often were. In between scenes, stage hands literally roll rooms into place, just the way they do on film sets. There’s even a clip from the movie the play’s characters make.  It all adds up to an amusing conceit and it works. (Click here to see a delightful faux-website on Vera’s life.)

The actors look as though they’re having a ball.  Sanaa Lathan, terrific as the sister Beneatha in the 2004 revival of A Raisin in the Sun, is just as winning as Vera.  But she has strong competition from Stephanie J. Block as the spoiled movie star, Karen Olivo as a light-skinned black actress who tries to expand her opportunities by passing as a Brazilian and, most especially, from the scene-stealing Kimberly Herbert Gregory as a classically-trained black actress who has reluctantly made peace with the eye-rolling and shoulder wagging required for mammy roles.

But Lathan outshines them all in the second act as an older and savvier Vera.   Lathan says she based her character, in part, on Eartha Kitt (click here to read Q&A with Lathan) and she’s totally mastered the later-in-life mannerisms of Kitt and other talented black actresses from that era who attained some measure of celebrity but never ceased to struggle with the promise of equality and the reality of dashed dreams.

Nottage has once again found a fertile subject in the ways in which black women have had to negotiate with the images that others impose on them. But, just as in Ruined, she’s reluctant to end on a truly sad note.  Even when, as in the case of women like Vera who make their living based on how people see them, the options are so limited. 

A friend once introduced me to an actress who traveled around the country playing the maid in drawing room comedies written in the ‘20s, ‘30s and early ‘40s.  She worked steadily but, frustrated by the lack of ability to show the full range of what she could do, she eventually became an alcoholic.

The audience seemed full of young, good-looking black actors, including a row right behind us, the night K and I saw By the Way, Meet Vera Stark. And judging by their loud and frequent laughter—sometimes ironic, sometimes rueful—things haven’t changed as much as the rest of us might like to think. 

I laughed too but I felt that the Vera Starks, the Theresa Harrises, that alcoholic black actress putting on one maid’s costume after another for years on end, deserve more than that.  I know it’s a lot to ask of a play but if we can’t get it in the theater, then where?

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