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By the Way, Meet Vera Stark

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Stephanie J. Block and Sanaa Lathan.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

If you want to know how ordinary African-American women will respond when faced with extraordinary situations, you must go to Lynn Nottage. In plays like Intimate Apparel, Fabulation, or the Re-Education of Undine, and Ruined, she's pulled back the veil of the familiar to show that universality never looks—or ends—quite the way you expect. Her new play By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, which just opened at Second Stage Theatre, fits snugly in her catalog as a largely gorgeous, if uneven, chronicle of a remarkable black actress made and destroyed by Hollywood, but rescued by history.

Nottage has said that Vera Stark, the saucy but determined star-not-to-be who's played here by Sanaa Lathan, was inspired by Theresa Harris, whom Nottage discovered in the pre-Production Code Barbara Stanwyck film Baby Face. Her role of a maid may have been common for black women of the period, but Harris stood out for Nottage in a way few others at the time could or would, suggesting for her a more serious artist than most were allowed (or able) to reveal. But with this play, which has been given a smart and stylish production by Jo Bonney, Nottage also probes the burdens that such uniqueness can force on people unequipped to handle it. As any performer will tell you, making a splash is one thing but making a career is something else.

So the first act of By the Way, Meet Vera Stark documents the splash. It's 1933, and Vera is a struggling actress working as a maid (yes, really) for a bona-fide starlet, "America's little sweetie pie" Gloria Mitchell (Stephanie J. Block). Gloria is planning an audition for the plum role of Marie, the dying octoroon prostitute-mistress of a wealthy merchant, in the guaranteed blockbuster The Belle of New Orleans. It's a role every white woman in town wants, but what's less commonly known is that Tilly, a darker-skinned slave and Marie's eventual confidante, is one of the most substantial roles for a black woman to date—and after helping Gloria study her script for hours on end, Vera has set her sights and her talents on it.

For Vera, the journey to Tilly has both exhilarations and indignities. The former comes in meeting and falling for the director's driver, Leroy (Daniel Breaker), himself a brilliant musician compelled by financial necessity to work as a studio driver. The latter involves an impromptu audition: Gloria is entertaining the movie's producer (David Garrison) and director (Kevin Isola) at her home (the period-precise set design is by Neil Patel), the latter of whom is committed to casting the film "real"—and Vera is all too willing to slump her shoulders, dull her voice, and dumb herself all the way down to give him the "authenticity" he demands. "I did it so easily it frightened me," Vera admits later. "And I got to thinking about what I'd be willing to do to have a taste of what Gloria's got."

Stephanie J. Block and Sanaa Lathan.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

The aftertaste, however, is considerably less sweet, as the second act shows. It's now 2003, and Herb Forrester (Breaker again), a "filmmaker, musician, and entrepreneur" from Oakland, is hosting a colloquium titled in which he and two black women, professor Carmen Levy-Green (Kimberly H├ębert Gregory) and journalist-poet Afua Assata Ejobo (Karen Olivo), have convened to discuss Vera and her legacy as it both was and wasn't. The movie, it turns out, was an enormous success, and carried Vera to an Oscar nomination—followed by decades in low-budget and lower-standard flicks and TV series. But after a 1973 appearance on The Brad Donovan Show, in which she hawked her Vegas nightclub act, Vera disappeared entirely. Where did she go, and why?

Nottage and Bonney are spectacular at posing such questions, but less effective at setting us on the road to the answers. In juxtaposing Vera's final TV appearance, in which she appears in a cruel green paisley dress (designed by ESosa) alongside Brad (Garrison) and a British pop star (Isola), with the contemporary panel discussion, the action veers dangerously close to parody. The first act goes out of its way to unlock the humanity in the compromise-riddled careers of Vera and her friends (Gregory appears as her rotund roommate, Olivo as a light-skinned gold-digger ready, willing, and able to sleep her way to the top), the director and playwright do not appear eager to afford the present-day people the same courtesy. Herb is a sniveling, self-centered milquetoast, while Garrison, Isola, and especially Gregory and Olivo embody smarmy stereotypes that drip more with dramatic function than they do genuineness.

This hurts the play and mutes its message not to take anyone, and the gifts he or she may possess, for granted. But Lathan shores up the center with a delicious performance that elicits all the sensitive complexities out of an artist who wants only to reach the pinnacle of her abilities. You see her struggling against the delicacy of the earlier era, and experience the late-in-life ache of the welts those battles left on her soul; Lathan unlocks the tragedy of promise squandered without condescending to it, the way her surroundings encourage. Block can't avoid overplaying post-intermission, when trying to justify a full-on (and frustrating) Judy Garland impression, but her earlier Gloria is expansive and delightful, displaying the full range of the character's limited talents and the extent to which she depended on Vera.

The play's closing moments cement this. They take place in a flashback to the climax of The Belle of New Orleans, as Tilly and Marie were saying their final goodbyes. Vera knows that even a torrid, cheesy Southern epic can be based on real pain, and instructs Gloria to baste her lines with it, which casts earlier events (and the hilarious snippet of the finished film we see) in a more profound light. There's no doubt from the scene who the real star was, or should have been. Our final glimpse of Lathan, her eyes drenched in honest feeling and the knowledge that she's pulled the ultimate con on generations of moviegoers and critics, is one you won't soon forget. It and By the Way, Meet Vera Stark ensure you'll never look at, or look past, anyone in any dusty movie in quite the same way again.

By the Way, Meet Vera Stark
Through May 29
Second Stage Theatre, 307 West 43rd Street at 8th Avenue
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Second Stage Theatre

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