Dallas — How can a smart, ambitious black actress break into movies in the 30s? Any way she can, of course. By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, an edgy if uneven comedy by Lynn Nottage, directed and designed by Bruce R. Coleman at Theatre Three, follows a fictional fresh and sassy wannabe actress as she forges a big time career in bit parts playing maids and nannies in depression-era Hollywood. Part revealing satire, part panel discussion (literally), the play looks at the effect of performing a lifetime of “shuck 'n jive” roles, of black maids with doglike loyalty waiting hand and foot on rich white women—because those were the only parts available for “coloreds.” The handsome, high-powered cast, wigged out and lushly outfitted in Tory Padden’s elegant vintage gowns and tuxes, makes us laugh—and think about why we’re laughing.
We first meet Vera Stark (a pert, knowing Yolonda Williams) doing in life what she’ll imitate over and over in art—working as the maid, confidante, and dresser for Gloria Mitchell (a svelte and delightfully self-absorbed Lee Jamison), a famous ’30s actress billed as “America’s little sweetie-pie.” In her maid’s hat and white apron, Vera flies around the posh apartment, fixing drinks and finding just the right gown for her glamorous, scattered boss. She pampers, cajoles, teases, scolds, and finally gets the desired hambone scene from Gloria, as she rehearses to audition for a juicy role playing a tragic heroine in a Southern antebellum drama. Vera spots the perfect role for herself in the script, and sets her formidable sails to get her first real acting job—as the dying woman’s loyal maid, naturally.
Also afloat on the Hollywood or Bust boat are Vera’s roommates, also black and lured to California in the hope of making it in movies. Lottie (a commanding Stormi Demerson, comically conjuring every tough mama role in the book) was once a shapely Broadway dancer, but now she’s heavier, aging and spends her time listening to radio soaps. Annie Mae (an aggressively seductive Raven Garcia), light-skinned, with flashing eyes and attitude to spare, passes herself off as a fiery Brazilian actress, and looks to the casting couch as her career base. The funniest scenes in the play revolve around the three striving actresses, as they deploy their wicked expertise—singing, dancing and vamping—to land the job. Adding to the fun is an artsy and asinine German director (Aaron Roberts) and a dyspeptic Hollywood mogul (Paul J. Williams) setting everybody straight. The core business of the film industry is to give people living through the Depression a guaranteed 90 minutes of escapist fantasy. Period.
Vera cautiously opens her heart to Leroy Barksdale (a slyly charming Calvin Roberts), a musician with dreams of composing his own scores, while working as the director’s chauffeur. He chides Vera for seeking servant roles, saying it was “hard enough getting free the first time.” Still, he’s drawn to Vera’s vibrancy and verve, later recalling her as “cheesecake in a brown paper bag.”
The second act opens in 2003 with a Vera Stark Symposium, following screening of The Belle of New Orleans, the ’30s film that launched Vera’s career and confirmed Gloria as a legend, convincingly and hilariously created on an overhead screen in all its melodramatic glory by video designer Rich Frohlich. The black panelists—a film historian (Calvin Roberts), a female activist (Garcia), and an Ivy League feminist scholar (Demerson)—are addressing a question. Why did this clearly gifted actress keep playing the same demeaning, narrow roles? They’ve looked at all the old movies. Next they run the footage of Vera’s appearance on a 1973 talk show, achieved by rolling out the show set-up, replete with host (Williams) and rock-star guest (Aaron Roberts).
This is a battle-scarred Vera, getting up in a tacky dress supposedly created by a black designer, smiling and hissing in the same breath: not at all what the host expected. She steps to the mike, and does a kind of throaty, black female Tony Bennett impression; she’s doing the club circuit in Vegas now, it seems. When asked about her recollections of the famous star of her landmark film, she says, "Gloria caught a break, while I caught a bus every day." To put it mildly. The twist comes at the end, with a surprise guest, and more panelist theories about Vera’s motives and the roots of her relationships with Gloria. On and on they go, each expert given mike time for their particular rants.
The podium-pounding question about why the vaunted Vera kept taking stock mammy and maid roles begins to wear thin, even for a table of academic types. Their own strident pontificating in defending their film workshop insights sounds pretty not-so-new-wave, after all. Is this the pot calling the kettle a stereotype?
Nottage’s sometimes ragged, but often incisive satire works best as she turns it on the panelists. Vera Stark and other actresses of color did what they could in their time to get a part, to act. She’s proud that she “opened doors” for those ahead, despite her battered sense of self. Maybe Vera says it best in her interview: “Here I am 40 years later, still answering questions about The Belle of New Orleans. Tilly is my shame and my glory. She gave me my career.”
So what’s to be ashamed of? Everybody trades in something, and this early actress broke the color barrier for others to come. Give her a break. At last. And another round of applause.
» Read our feature on the show