REVIEW: Lynn Nottage’s “By The Way, Meet Vera Stark”
Two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage (“Intimate Apparel”, “Sweat” ) continues her residency at Off-Broadway’s Signature Theatre with a first-rate revival of her 2011 play, “By The Way, Meet Vera Stark”, a smart satire that takes a piercing look at the damage done by early Hollywood representations of people of color, and the legacy that echoes forth today.
Based in part on the life of film actress Theresa Harris (1906-1985) who played maids in dozens of films then disappeared, act one is a cheerful, fast-paced comedy that mimics the sensibilities of its 1933 setting. Here we meet Vera Stark (Jessica Frances Dukes) an earnest and hardworking budding black actress who spends her days as maid to white film star Gloria Mitchell (Jenni Barber), “America’s little sweetie pie” who is getting older and not handling it well.
Vera is helping Gloria prepare to star as Marie, the sickly octoroon mistress of a wealthy merchant in the new southern epic “The Belle of New Orleans”. But, Vera really has her eyes on the role of Tilly, Marie’s maid and, more importantly, a “slave with lines!”
Act one is capped by a farcical party in Gloria’s richly appointed, art deco drawing room (set by Clint Ramos) in which the haughty director, Maximillian von Oster (Manoel Feliciano), and film producer (David Turner) appear, alongside Vera’s roommates Lottie (Heather Alicia Simms), who is helping as a second maid for the evening, and Anna Mae (Cary Patterson), who is there as Maximillian’s guest, disguised as “Miss Anna Maria Fernandez of Rio de Janeiro”.
In act two, we learn that Vera got the part of Tilly, which became iconic and career-defining. Here the play shifts from its screwball 1930s sentiments to a 2003 academic colloquium entitled: “Rediscovering Vera Stark, the Legacy of ‘The Belle of New Orleans’”, and hosted by Herb Forrester (Warner Miller), a “filmmaker, musician, and entrepreneur” who is also quite the didactic. Panelists Carmen Levy-Green (Heather Alicia Simms) and Afua Assata Ejobo (Cary Patterson) debate the meaning and legacy of Vera’s film work, while also hocking their own books.
The centerpiece of this act is “newly rediscovered” footage from Vera and Gloria’s surprise, televised reunion on the fictional “Brad Donovan Show” in 1973, which is performed centerstage. Adding yet another element, film clips of “The Belle of New Orleans” are projected.
The interview scene meanders a bit, and the satirical debate between the panelists is far more interesting and illuminating of Ms. Nottage’s themes than the “discovered” footage. What is stark (no pun intended) are the different paths Vera and Gloria’s fame afforded them, with Vera relegated to the C-list and Gloria remembered and celebrated for her career.
Like Hattie McDaniel in real life, Vera is criticized by fellow African Americans for taking film roles as maids, and later becomes an outspoken participant in the Civil Rights Movement, before alcohol and pills enter the picture.
What Ms. Nottage does most brilliantly over the course of the second act is show the way in which history and myth entwine, with spirited academics in 2003 debating whether Vera and Gloria were cousins or lovers, and whether Vera herself is dead or alive—all while delivering joke after joke.
The cast is terrific, and director Kamilah Forbes effortlessly shifts the action between disparate tones and styles. While act two does drag, Ms. Nottage writing is incisive and engaging, and the story of Vera Stark remains an important history lesson and explainer for our current media landscape in which actors of color still fight for better and different roles.
Bottom Line: “By The Way, Meet Vera Stark”, a smart satire that takes a piercing look at the damage done by early Hollywood representations of people of color, and the legacy that echoes forth today. With a terrific cast and Lynn Nottage’s is incisive and engaging writing, this play is an easy critic’s pick.
“By The Way, Meet Vera Stark”
The Irene Diamond Stage
The Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street
New York, NY 10036
Running Time: 2 hours and 25 minutes (one intermission)
Opening Night: February 19, 2019
Final Performance: March 10, 2019