By the Way, Meet Vera Stark
By Lynn Nottage
Directed by Walter Dallas
Through May 11 at Everyman Theatre
Vera Stark (Dawn Ursula) is doing that thing she swore she'd never do: She's playing into every Hollywood cliche of the put-upon but wise American Negro living under slavery. She walks with a bent back and a shuffling stoop. She speaks in a broken vernacular instead of her polished, witty English. She breaks into a blues spiritual to evoke the generations of suffering contained in her soul. But she's doing it for a good reason, she tells herself. She wants the part of the maid in the new Southern epic European director Maximillian Von Oster (Robert Lyons) is making. Stark knows this role because she's been running lines from the script with Gloria Mitchell (Beth Hylton), the cinema star known as "America's sweetie pie," who employs Stark as her maid. And when Mitchell holds a dinner party for Von Oster and the head of the studio (Wil Love) and the director starts running through those cliches as if they're a checklist for a honestly realistic portrayal of the plight of the African-American under the "curious institution," Stark begins enacting each of those bigoted assumptions to get his attention. She nails her auditions by being a spectacular stereotype.
That the entire scene plays out on the level of I Love Lucy's physical comedy while it simultaneously skewers cinematic representation is one of the many ways Everyman Theatre's current production of playwright Lynn Nottage's By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, a fearlessly intelligent and deliciously vicious annihilation of Hollywood, is in the same league as Spike Lee's Bamboozled and Steve Erickson's novel Zeroville. Kudos to director Walter Dallas and the entire cast for diving into the play's comic pretense-that as 21st-century media consumers, we're all very well aware of the stereotypes on which Nottage's script hits with a sledgehammer. The play becomes a riot of a broad comedy because it so casually catches contemporary sensibilities in the bind of recognizing those outdated on-screen and -stage tropes as commonly racist. Laugh all you want now in the comfort of this distance: At some earlier point in time, our laughter at the exact same things wasn't ironic.
This awareness of the assumed safety in passing judgment on the past is what gives Vera Stark a wicked kick. The first act, set in 1933, follows Stark as she works with and for Mitchell, a boozy dame somewhat past her youthful prime and not dealing with it well at all. Stark lives with two other aspiring actresses/working women: Lottie (a scene-stealing Kelli Blackwell) and Anna (Kathryn Tkel), a light-skinned woman who is passing as Brazilian to date a prominent director. At the studio one day, Stark meets Von Oster's man Friday, Leroy Barksdale (Yaegel T. Welch), a jazz musician with a budding Afrocentric intellectualism. They all swirl together at Mitchell's aforementioned dinner party, an almost vaudevillian set piece of screwball comedy.
The second act takes in the present. Stark earned a role in Von Oster's movie The Belle of New Orleans, an early 1930s epic Southern melodrama in Gone with the Wind mode. The film made Stark a star, but it's also the only thing for which she's remembered. The movie is being screened at a conference where three cultural critics/academics/pundits-Carmen Levy-Green (Blackwell again), Afua Assata Ejobo (Tkel), and Herb Forrester (Welch)-discuss Stark's legacy. She apparently disappeared from the spotlight following a 1973 appearance on Brad Donovan's (Love) television talk show (think: Dick Cavett), clips from which the cast enacts. These excerpts offer the cast another chance to parody a time period, the contentious '70s, with the same feral glee displayed in the first act. Only this time, the satire is leavened with a genuine measure of loss. This act presents an elliptical telling of Stark's life after her big break, and it's riddled with a failed marriage, professional exile, and the disappointment of living long enough to see yourself immortalized for something you're not entirely proud of.
This half of the play offers a thumbnail sketch of the backstories of so many black actors in Hollywood who spent their entire careers in B-rolls, on screen and in Hollywood histories. Nottage has cited undersung African-American actress Theresa Harris as one of the models for Stark, but she's given the character such a rich, detailed life story that Stark has the air of a real-life little-known Hollywood legend. (The entire production taps into the high glamor of 1930s Hollywood; even the credits show up on a screen like title cards.) And Ursula just kills it in the title role. Whether she's having to demean herself to get a role, going head to head with Mitchell about their shared past, coolly skating around delicate questions on the 1970s talk show, or over-cranking the emotions in the faux film clips of Belle that introduce the second act, Ursula makes Stark an actress who can't hide how completely she understands the role she's been asked to play in each instance. That sense of constant performance is one of the play's takeaways about the lives of Stark's generation of performers: The "by the way" suggests that the titular heroine is an afterthought even in the production that tells the story of her life. Meet Vera Stark won't change those chapters of film history, but it does provide a critical primer on how to watch and think about the people behind the make-believe onscreen.