Thursday, February 19, 2015

Short Cut: By the Way, Meet Vera Stark

I've been intrigued by the play By The Way, Meet Vera Stark since it was performed at Second Stage Theater in NYC in 2011 (featuring Sanaa Lathan as Vera), so I was looking forward to seeing the production at Penumbra Theatre this season, especially with some wonderful performers cast in it.

The first act takes us to Hollywood in 1933 and Vera Stark (Crystal Fox), a black actress who divides her time between working as a maid for white actress Gloria Mitchell (Norah Long) and working on her own career--mostly playing maids. Greta Oglesby plays Lottie, Vera's good friend and a former vaudeville star who has been eating her way into the right size to play the "Mammy" roles that are available to her.

Norah Long and Crystal Fox as Gloria Mitchell and Vera Stark
I could watch Crystal Fox, Greta Oglesby, and Jamila Anderson give each other side eye for HOURS. Particularly in the gorgeous costumes by Mathew LeFebvre--and some super-cute shoes. The period wigs by Andrea Moriarity are just perfect as well. The machinations of these actresses vying for roles in a high-profile studio film are fun and funny, even as they expose the indignities of their profession.

The second act feels a bit less effective, unfortunately. Set in 2003 at at academic conference about the legacy of Vera Stark, it also includes scenes from a 1973 television interview that Stark did just before disappearing from public view. Playwright Lynn Nottage mocks academic pretensions, but brings up more questions than answers about the meaning of Stark's career. Fortunately, a closing scene takes us back to 1933 with Vera and Gloria on the set of the film, and reminds us of the characters and presents a bit of intrigue about their relationship in their heyday.

Above all else, this play left me wanting to know more about the African-American experience in early Hollywood.  Particularly in a year like this, in which nonwhite actors were shut out completely at the Oscars, it's interesting to take a look back at what things were like in the early days.  I think I'll start with Donald Bogle's Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams: The Story of Black Hollywood and then perhaps Hattie McDaniel: Black Ambition, White Hollywood by Jill Watts.  Any play that makes me want to learn more about the subject is a huge success for me.