Dallas — One way or another, we’ve all chased The Dream—of fortune, fame and a better life around the bend. And the calculation always comes down to this: what are we willing to pay? That’s a question that carried special weight and urgency for black actors trying to break into Hollywood during the first half of the 20th century—who faced the choice of playing silly or stereotypical roles in the movies…or nothing at all.
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage’s 2011 work By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, now running in its regional premiere at Theatre Three, takes on the comedy, the absurdity, and the personal devastation that often resulted when black actors—and women of color in particular—made careers on film by fitting themselves into a white world’s vision of who they should be. Along the way, however, Nottage argues that many of these performers became outright Hollywood subversives, stealing scenes from under the noses of star actresses, and making (if we only look a bit harder) much more of their roles than we might have expected.
Back in the Day
Actress Yolonda Williams plays the title role in Vera Stark, and says the movies of that era, and the black performers in them, are “part of the fiber of my whole life.” Her grandmother raised a family in East Texas during the 1940s, and often cut a sweet summertime deal with her children: finish the chores in the morning and they’d all go to the movies, to “sit in the cool” during the heat of the day.
“My grandmother and then my Mom were big cinema buffs,” Williams remembers. “The movies were a great escape, a getaway”—and they took appreciative delight in seeing African-American men and women on the screen. When Williams herself was growing up in Dallas in the 1970s, she remembers “before cable or DVDs, when old movies like Cabin in the Sky or Stormy Weather or [actor-comedian] Mantan Moreland films would come on late at night on Channel 21 or 39. My Mom made me very aware of black actors in Hollywood.”
Yet the roles open to black performers in those days—and to black actresses in particular—offered precious little range. Black actresses most often played slaves, “mammies” and maids, with the occasional blues singer thrown into the mix. Often, the work went uncredited. Yet Williams doesn’t second-guess these women’s choices.
“They were tired of eating hand to mouth, eating out of a paper sack,” she says. “There’s nothing wrong about desiring more from life. Compromise can become surrender if you have too much of it, but I think Ethel Waters and Hattie McDaniel and Lena Horne simply took their opportunities, thinking ‘I can pull myself out of poverty, have a nice house, and bring some people along with me to a better life.’ And as long as you’re secure in yourself, that’s all right. There’s a Biblical verse I repeat—‘I know who I am, and I know whose I am.’
“Vera represents a lot of actresses who were very talented at that time, but who never really got the opportunity to shine—who were great in supporting roles behind other folk. The play shows you how creative people had to be in order to pay the rent and survive, not just in the movies but in life as well. It’s a story that hasn’t been told but needs to be. Act One is very playful, and Act Two is much more in your face, and I think it will be an education for both black and white audiences.”
Who Was Vera Stark?
The character of Vera is a blend of many actresses of color who worked in Hollywood back in the day, but began as Nottage’s riff on the life of Houston-born singer and actress Theresa Harris, whose standout “St. Louis Blues” number in the 1936 film Banjo on My Knee was mentioned in Frank Nugent’s New York Times review as the work of “an anonymous soloist.”
Nottage told the Times before the play’s New York premiere that she “discovered” Harris in an earlier movie (and one where she did get a credit), 1933’s Baby Face, the sex-drenched, pre-Code story of a poor girl who climbs her way to wealth, bed by bed. It starred a young Barbara Stanwyck, but what attracted Nottage was the young and beautiful black woman at her side. Baby Face gives Harris’ character, Chico, about as many great lines of dialogue as Stanwyck, and the two women are shown rising in the world together—walking down the street in the same stylish furs, sharing the ups and downs of fortune. Harris “plays” Stanwyck’s maid when a wealthy suitor comes to call, but it’s clear she’s acting the part for a purpose. A recent blogger insists that Harris’s role in Baby Face marks the first appearance of the BBF—the sassy Black Best Friend—in American film.
Still, for every memorable part like Chico’s—or Hattie McDaniel’s “great, sarcastic role in Gone With the Wind,” says Williams, asking us to remember that “Mammy always gets the best of Scarlett”—there are dozens of black actresses who seem almost invisible as they answer doors and carry trays from the kitchen in the movies of the pre-civil rights era.
Nottage’s plays, which include Ruined (2009), Intimate Apparel (2003) and Crumbs from the Table of Joy (1995), let us into the stories and lives of women who’ve gone largely unnoticed by the world. In Vera Stark, she seems to both acknowledge the problem of black actors playing roles that reinforce unfair and demeaning images—and the truth that for individual actors, a steady income and any kind of fame was worth it.
Williams herself isn’t unfamiliar with the dilemma.
“I’ve been in situations myself where I’ve had people hire me as a black actress and may have wanted me to do things that were stereotypical. But I had control in the moment, as to what I would do. You can’t just put your hands on your hips and snap your fingers—you can be enlightening to people, and let them know there are other choices to be made.”
“One of the characters [in Vera Stark] says ‘It was hard enough to get out of slavery the first time. Why are we still taking these roles?’ But the answer is: they took the roles to get into films, even if it meant playing the slave—or the buffoon.”
Rich Frohlich has made a study of vintage movies and radio shows since his college days in Connecticut. A longtime sound designer for North Texas theaters (this is his 31st show with Theatre Three), a filmmaker specializing in instructional and industrial videos, and founder of the award-winning Texas Radio Theatre Company, Frohlich was asked to create a vintage-look movie short for Vera Stark.
“We open Act Two with a ‘30s-look, Warner Brothers-style film that’s about eight minutes long,” Frohlich says, adding that major inspiration came from two Bette Davis vehicles, 1938’s Jezebel (Theresa Harris played the maid) and 1939’s Dark Victory.
Filming took place in the Dallas home of a Theatre Three staff member whose “house was built around , and looked vintage enough to make it all work.” Frohlich shot in black-and-white using a digital camera, then scaled everything down to a 4:5 aspect ratio—“as close as I could get to the 4:4 used at the time,” he notes. He used filters, After Effects and an overlay of “raw scratched film,” and then tweaked the sound by compressing it and adding “hiss”—all to produce a film clip that will seem convincingly “old” to the audience. Frohlich also created a Mike Douglas-style “opening sequence” for another part of the play, and footage that mimics a ‘70s-look “French documentary” that delves into Vera’s life.
“This is actually the first time I’ve been asked to provide vintage video, and it’s been a great experience, especially working with Raven [Garcia], Yolonda and Lee [Jamison]. We had to do the shoot before the rehearsal process began, so they did an amazing job of interpreting who and what their characters would become, even before they’d been able to add all the nuances you develop in the process.”
Perhaps because film history wasn’t new territory for Frohlich, he says he was immediately impressed by the play’s accuracy.
“For people who aren’t familiar with the time period or with the challenges that folks had in film back in that day, this play should be very illuminating and thought-provoking,” he says. “You can think about so many scenes in movies—Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson dancing on the steps with Shirley Temple, for instance—and you have to wonder: what was he thinking and feeling? Outside that movie set, what was his life like in Hollywood? What would it have been if he’d lived in the Deep South? The second-class status was awful, and we have come a long way from that.”
A Theater Community
Born in Marshall and raised in Dallas, Yolonda Williams says she’s “honored and humbled” by early response to the play, and proud of her nearly 30-year relationship with Theatre Three. (Vera Stark is her 11th appearance with the company.)
“It’s so wonderful to be working with [director] Bruce Coleman, who was an intern when I was cast in my first role at Theatre Three,” she says. Williams first auditioned for artistic director Jac Alder in 1985, when she still “needed to ask my professors’ permission to be in my first show at Theatre Three”; she’s an alum of Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Dallas.
“To have a great kinship with folks for so many years, that’s something to be proud of,” says Williams. “And that’s what theater does: it brings a multicultural community together, with people who wouldn’t normally cross paths at the Kroger’s or church or the Whataburger. You need to get out and meet people who aren’t exactly like you, who think in ways different from you—or you’re locked into one point of view, and that’s not the way to live. And theater can make that happen.”
» Here is the opening of The Belle of New Orleans, the film shot by Rich Frohlich for this Theatre Three production: