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By the Way, Meet Vera Stark

You may not believe this but I had a slender pretty figure when I first come out here. . .but you gotta be high yella mellow or look like you crawled outta Mississippi cotton patch to get work. So here I is, seven years later trying to eat my way into some work, looking like someone's mammy and the closest I've gotten to pictures is sitting in the back row of the cinema
— Lottie, explaining why she, like her apartmemt mate Vera, would like to be part of a new movie about the antebellum South. while her being a fine shimmier got her lots of work on Broadway, this didn't work in Hollywood.

I ain't the only one who's spent my last dime to get out here thinking, just maybe times was ready to change.

—Vera, who hasn't given up on her hopes of something bigger and better, so she views her real time job as an aging movie starlet's maid as an opportunity, an alternative to just "waiting for someone to discover me sleeping on a streetcar."

People need their history to seem heroic. . .if you're gonna give `em slaves, give them happy ones.
— Slasvick, the Hollywood Studio mogul, nixing the idealistic but pompous director's vision for The Belle of New Orleans because the times don't call for truth but a feel good experience. This sums up the mercenary Hollywood philosophy that made black actors resort to playing inauthentic and usually minor roles— especially in 1933 when a movie maid's pay far exceeded a real maid's little better than slave wages.
Jessica Frances Dukes, Jenni Barber and Heather Alicia Simms. Photo by Joan Marcus
Lynn Nottage is one of the contemporary theater's true treasures. But her two well deserved Pulitzer prize winners, Ruined and Sweat are just part of her oeuvre.

There's her trilogy about African-American women in different eras and walks of life, that began with the wonderful and still often produced 2004 Intimate Apparel set in the first decade of the 20th Century that was inspired by Nottage's own grandmother. Her residency at the Signature Theater has brought fine new productions of that trilogy's other two plays: First was Fabulation,or The Re-Education of Undine about a woman at the turn of the 21st Century. Now we have Nottage's take on an actress struggling for a place at the table in the Hollywood of the 1930s with Vera Stark a fictional stand-in for Theresa Harris who broke the Hollywood barrier against high profile roles for African-Americans in the 1933 film Baby Face).

By the way, Meet Vera Stark was, and still is, a fiendishly clever satire. It starts out as screwball comedy revolving around the content and casting of an antebellum Southern epic called The Belle of New Orleans. Then it turns meta-theatrical as it jumps to a 2003 Vera Stark appreciation symposium whose upscale African-American panelists flash back and forth between the events leading up to her groundbreaking role in The Belle of New Orleans and an archival replay of a 197 final public appearance.

While the second act still has some problems, isn't director Kamilah Forbes and her cast are telling a story that's become ever more relevant nowadays. After all, this has been a year when we've seen more plays written by and featuring African-Americans telling their stories. What's more, the political chaos and the MeToo movement have put the spotlight on Hollywood's long history of bigotry and sexual misdeeds.

As in Fabulation. . ., the focus in Meet Vera Stark is on the title character, in this case an ambitious young woman unwilling to abandon her hope of getting her share of Hollywood's especially glittery American Dream. Nottage has surrounded her with other interesting characters to represent various issues and inspirational sources. Thus Vera's roommate Lottie (Heather Alicia Simms) is an obvious nod to Hattie McDaniel, famous as Scarlett O'Hara's Mammy in Gone With the Wind. The playwright's intentional double casting for five of the seven m cast members underscores her intent to skewer society's overall preoccupation with fame.

By the Way, Meet Vera Stark
Jessica Frances Dukes (Joan Marcus)
Director Forbes has done her utmost to help her actors make the most of the play's many hilarious acting opportunities, though it's hard to top the stellar cast of the original production. Some of the actors would have benefited from being pushed harder to deliver their lines with more clarity. (I overheared quite a complaints about not hearing everything on my way out).

As with all Signature productions, the stagecraft is excellent. Clint Ramos's rotating sets are well supported by Matt Frey's lighting. Costumer Dede M. Ayite deserves a special shoutout for the costumes, especially the one for the older Vera.

Jessica Frances Dukes is fine, both as the young Vera as well as the almost unrecognizable one she becomes during her later turn as a guest on a 1973 TV interview show. As the only other character not designated to morph into a different part after the intermission, Jenni Baker taps into the self-absorption and insecurity of Vera's boss, the movie starlet Gloria Mitchell who's passed her prime as "America's little sweetie pie" and must therefore now audition for plum roles— like The Belle of Orleans the epic Southern romance around which the play revolves.

Since, Baker's Gloria also shows up as herself, but older, during those second act TV show segments, it's evident that, despite Vera and Gloria's unusually intimate relationship, the Glorias of this world will always be Me-Firsters. No wonder Vera had to rely on her own resourcefulness, rather than expect Gloria to put repay her for her patient coaching while she's auditioning for the Belle role.

The first scene shifts from Gloria's posh living room to the apartment Vera shares with the other two women who will find their own way into that plot-propelling film. This scene is buoyed by Nottage's terrifically apt and funny dialogue about the way Hollywood shortchanged talented women of color. We hear the once shapely Lottie explain how Broadway success never translated into a film career for her. As she tells Vera "I spent seven years trying to eat my way into Hollywood's demand that women like me gotta be high yella mellow or look like you crawled outta Mississippi cotton patch to get work."

A third apartment mate who shows up is the sexy, light skinned Anna Marie (a standout performance byCarra Patterson) who is willing to totally deny her true identity to navigate the racial barrier. In another nifty bit of double casting she eventually turns up as a militant journalist.

The 1933 act's piece de resistance is its finale — a truly hilarious screwball comedy style party given by Gloria for the studio mogul Frederick Slasvick (An aptly mogul-ish David Turner). It's a full cast scenario that includes Lottie as an extra maid, and Anna Mae masquerading as an Argentinian and a sure to win the coveted Belle role since her escort is the movie's pompous director, Maxmillian Van Oster (Manoel Felciano).

Just before and during that party we also meet a potential romantic interest show up for Vera. That's Leroy Barksdale (Warner Miller who almost makes you forget the Leroy of Daniel Breaker). Leroy is marking time as Mr. Slaswick's chauffeur while working towards his own success, and doing so without the compromises made by the women.

The second act's structural shift is fun and ingeniously merges the three, separated by 40 years events. However, the parts focusing on the symposium panel are somewhat awkwardly staged and overly broad. What's more, while Vera Stark holds center stage in the first act, her story loses some of its vitality when she's talked about rather than acting out her own story. That said, this act too has its memorable highlights: The true to the period TV interview and an actual black and white film in which we see who finally got cast. That knockout film was created by Nottage's husband Tony Gerber for the 2011 cast. It's now presented with the current cast under Ms. Forbes' direction.

To conclude, despite the second act's not being a straight A, I was happy to meet this Vera Stark — as I think you too will be.

For more about Lynn Nottage, check out our chapter on her in our Playwrights Album.

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By the Way, Meet Vera Stark by Lynn Nottage
Directed by Kamilah Forbes.
Cast: Jenni Barber as Gloria, Jessica Frances Dukes as Vera, Manoel Felciano as Max/Peter, Warner Miller as Leroy/Herb, Carra Patterson as Anna Mae/Afua, Heather Alicia Simms as Lottie/Carmen and David Turner as Brad/Slasvick.
Clint Ramos: Scenic Design
Dede M. Ayite: Costume Design
Matt Frey: Lighting Design
Mikaal Sulaiman: Sound Design
Katherine Freer: Projection Design
Daniel Kluger: Composition
Production Stage Manager: Laura Wilson
Running Time: 2 hours and 25 minutes, 1 intermission
The Irene Diamond Stage at The Pershing Square Signature Center
From 1/29/19; opening 2/19/19; closing 3/03/19
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 2/16 press preview

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