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By the Way, Meet Vera Stark

Theatre Review by James Wilson - February 19, 2019

Jessica Frances Dukes and Jenni Barber
Photo by Joan Marcus

How much do biographers really know about the individuals they research? In bringing hidden figures out of the shadows of history, how does an academic or scholar resist applying a contemporary sensibility to experiences from generations before? How much of history is grounded in truth, and how much is the creation of the writer? These are some of the tantalizing questions prompted by Lynn Nottage's By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, currently receiving a visually stunning revival at New York's Signature Theatre.

Set in 1933, the first act of Nottage's play recounts the events leading up to the making of a big-budget film called The Belle of New Orleans. A cross between Camille and Jezebel, the fictional melodrama presents a Hollywood version of Southern gentility and nostalgia-infused slavery, and it stars Gloria Mitchell (Jenni Barber) as a consumptive leading lady and Vera Stark (Jessica Frances Dukes) as her devoted maid. In just one of the many layers of Nottage's play, Vera is not only Gloria's maid on film but also in real-life, and there are hints that their relationship is even more complex than one might initially presume.

The first act also introduces Vera's roommates, including Anna Mae Simpkins (Carra Patterson), a social climber passing as a Brazilian bombshell, and Lottie McBride (Heather Alicia Simms), a former star of black musical revues on Broadway and a casualty of Hollywood's limitations on African American performers. The act concludes with a madcap cocktail party scene with all of the women competing for the attention of the studio head and film director.

Moving forward to 2003, the second act begins with a screening of the final scene from the film (gorgeously produced in Warner Brothers-style by Caroline Onikute, with spot-on photography by Shawn Peters and editing by Keith Davis). The clip and a 1973 talk-show interview, in which Vera gave her final public interview, are part of a dramatized colloquium featuring Herb Forrester (Warner Miller) an unctuous host identified as a filmmaker, musician, and entrepreneur. Joining him are a pair of panelists, Carmen Levy-Green (Simms), a media and gender studies professor, and Afua Assata Ejobo (Patterson), a self-described journalist, poet, and performer. The scene alternates between the panel discussion and the dramatically-realized television segment, which showcases the Merv Griffin-like Brad Donovan (David Turner) and Peter Rhys-Davies (Manoel Felciano), an inebriated vestige from the British invasion. Juxtaposing the scenes and offering often contradictory commentary, the play puts the audience in the role of cultural researchers and archivists. In snippets from the flashback, for example, Gloria and Vera are reunited and there are more puzzling clues about their relationship. (A coda of sorts provides answers to the lingering questions.)

David Turner, Jessica Frances Dukes, and Manoel Felciano.
Photo by Joan Marcus

The play does not stint on great ideas and tackles pressing social issues. Nottage ingeniously addresses the restrictions on African American roles and representations in Hollywood of the 1930s, and she also interrogates the ways in which contemporary scholars and historians analyze and interpret the lives in contexts very different from their own. The play is a satire, though, and the heady, intellectual queries drift breezily above the comic hijinks.

As a satirical comedy, there are a lot of laughs, but sometimes at the expense of rich character development. For instance, the first scene, a rehearsal of the melodramatic film with Gloria and Vera, as well as the hip and boozy talk show scene, have the broad, parodic humor of sketches from a Carol Burnett show. The cocktail party scene goes on a bit too long and the slapstick shenanigans become wearisome. The second-act colloquium is particularly cartoonish, and poking fun at jargon-spouting, supercilious academics seems like an easy target.

Still, as directed by Kamilah Forbes, this is a topnotch production. As Vera, Dukes offers a moving and textured portrayal of a woman constrained by her social and historical circumstances. Barber is very funny as the spoiled movie glamour girl, and in their dual roles, Patterson and Simms mine a good deal of humor while adding plenty of heart to the proceedings. As Vera's love interest, a chauffeur/ musician, Warner Miller is charming while simultaneously giving the play its satirical bite.

The play especially benefits from striking design elements. Clint Ramos's scenic design, Dede M. Ayite's costumes, and Matt Frey's lighting are sparkling and period specific (in three different periods no less). And credit must also be given to Mia Neal, who is responsible for the witty and evocative hair and wig design. The combined effect of these components seems especially appropriate. The play does not try to conceal the underlying dark truths, but they are made palatable (and immensely entertaining) as if projected with the gloss and panache of a 1930s film epic.

By the Way, Meet Vera Stark
Through March 10
The Irene Diamond Stage at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
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