By the Way, Meet Vera Stark: Theater Review

Michael Lamont
Skillful and intelligent examination manages to cover all the emotional and analytic points within an accessibly entertaining comic vehicle.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of "Ruined" addresses the quandaries facing African-American artists in early 1930s Hollywood, first in the moment and then in hindsight.

By the Way, Meet Vera Stark is a quicksilver construction, blending disparate elements of genre parody, academic cant, broad humor, social comment and legitimate pathos while manipulating layers of irony, some blatant, others transparent, and still more downright subtle. Inspired by the career of bit player Theresa Harris, whose saucily subversive portrayals of maids subsisted on being memorable in the moment and forgotten the next, the play adopts a strategy not unlike that of the recent Clybourne Park: a first act positing an alternative reality to a well-known historical dramatic situation, and a second one set in later decades which presents a reinterpretation of the earlier event in the context of contemporary mores. It’s a highly theatrical concept that avoids nearly all the considerable pitfalls of such ambition in a high-wire act generally well marshaled by director Jo Bonney.

The first act is set in the digs of an increasingly desperate star, Gloria Mitchell (Amanda Detmer), formerly “America’s Sweetie Pie,” running lines with her maid Vera Stark (Sanaa Lathan) for an audition to play a tragic octaroon in an antebellum romance. With more talent as a drama queen than for drama, Gloria depends completely on Vera’s support, while Vera, herself an aspiring hopeful, fails to enlist her support in seeking the coveted role of the lead’s maid, an actual if not genuine character for a black actress to play (“It has lines!”). Manning and Bonney play this first act as a gloss on classic screwball comedy stylings (although in 1933, they had not yet quite coalesced into the form depicted), from the three distaff roommates on the make in the big town (here refreshingly all-black, though one is passing as Brazilian to further her career) to the farcical party with the main action unseen in the back patio as the staff works in the foreground. The actors have to play in character, and as their characters impersonating the roles they are constrained to play, while teasingly commenting on both.

Playwright Lynn Nottage also flirts with the conventions of race imagery of the period from Imitation of Life to, inevitably, Gone with the Wind. Thankfully she also pays full homage not only to the trailblazing sacrifices of black actors but also to the value of their craft, of any craft, even in service to demeaning stereotypes. When I was growing up, my first reaction to seeing black actors in caricatured parts was satisfaction that an artist had a job, was visible and working (especially during the Great Depression), even when the circumstances conspired to reinforce the greater invisibility of the race. This perspective was no longer viable by 1973, where the second act takes up Vera and Gloria appearing on a cheesy Las Vegas television interview show, and criticism had become a central gesture of liberation. And by 2003, where a panel of scholars debates the meaning of what went on back in 1933 (and in 1973), criticism has morphed into a series of referential delusions, where facts are manufactured to fit more enlightened forms of prejudice in the name of a flexible view of “history.” Nottage satirically observes that the constant across the eras is how determined society is to see what it wants to see.

All the actors are deft, poised with self-awareness without descending into self-consciousness. Lathan as Vera is naturally the most dazzlingly kaleidoscopic, always grounded throughout flights of imaginative fancy worthy of a character in a George Cukor movie. Bonney generally encourages the company to play very broadly, which serves to cue the audience reliably where to laugh, although it regrettably also encourages a sort of knowing superiority to the situations that I believe undercuts the essential sincerity of the characters’ subterfuges and enterprise. Amanda Detmer perhaps has the most difficult role to bring off, and while not immune to posturing outside of character as well as within, she does bring a welcome and surprising gravitas to Gloria as an elderly lady not entirely reformed from self-absorption. Kimberly Hébert Gregory, as the pal who endeavors to eat her way into Mammy typecasting, resorts to so many period hand-gestures with such ferocious dexterity that one cannot tell when she is overdone or simply very sly. Merle Dandridge’s dual turn as sexpot and lesbian ideologue sticks tightest to type yet her stage presence electrifies. And I was especially taken with the nuance of Kevin T. Carroll’s Leroy Barksdale, a trumpeter working as chauffeur to a director and future doomed husband to Vera, whose relatively stock part reveals depths of charm and gradations of finely-distilled feeling, for which credit is due some skillful dialogue as well as the sort of thoughtful acting which eschews all show.

Disappointingly unsuccessful is the use of filmed excerpts from the putative classic The Belle of New Orleans, which marks Vera’s breakthrough part. While deployed for novelty value and to add additional dimensions of depiction to the mix, the film is shockingly shot in the wrong aspect ratio and lit in an anachronistic style of at least a decade later, and the unfortunate decision to “distress” the print with scratches as if it were a pair of jeans seems tantamount to running silent films at a herky-jerky speed, the wrong kind of distancing device that only encourages audiences to misunderstand and dismiss the aesthetics of classical cinema. In a final irony, the talent manifested elsewhere in Lathan’s portrayal is tough to discern (although the point of a black actor seizing the dramatic climax is neatly taken), which was never the problem when Theresa Harris was onscreen.

Venue: The Geffen Playouse (Through Oct. 28)
Cast: Sanaa Lathan, Amanda Detmer, Kimberly Hébert Gregory, Merle Dandridge, Kevin T. Carroll, Spencer Garrett, Mather Zickel
Director: Jo Bonney
Writer: Lynn Nottage
Set Designer: Neil Patel
Costume Designer: ESosa
Lighting Designer: Jeff Croiter
Sound Designer: John Gromada
Wig, Hair & Makeup Designers: J. Jared Janas & Rob Greene
Filmmaker, “The Belle of New Orleans”: Tony Gerber