By Patrice Nolan, EncoreMichigan.com
DETROIT – By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, by two-time Pulitzer-prize winning dramatist Lynn Nottage, is the final show of the Hilberry Theatre season, and it is simply mesmerizing.
The play – alternately hilarious, uncomfortable and thought provoking – asks us to consider the implications of institutionalized racism in 1930s Hollywood. Black actors were relegated to roles as slaves and servants, specifically written to perpetuate the stereotypes that catered to the comfort of movie studio heads and their white audiences. The choice for these actors, as the play makes clear, was to play a maid in the movies, or be a maid in real life. A third choice, open to only the fair-skinned few, was to “pass” as white. This brilliant, thoroughly entertaining Hilberry production, directed by Billicia Charnelle Hines, explores all these themes.
The first act is set in ’30s-era Hollywood, where we meet movie star Gloria (Mary Sansone) running lines with her maid, Vera Stark (Breayre Tender). Gloria is a likeable prima donna, desperate to breathe new life into her career and ingenue image as “America’s Little Sweetie Pie.” Her relationship with Vera is somehow more casual and intimate than we might expect in a white-mistress/black-maid situation. We are tempted to chalk this up to misguided political correctness, and Nottage allows this misdirection. But this hints at the unfolding backstory – these two women have known each other for a long time. Vera is clearly the one calling the shots, keeping Gloria on track and mostly sober, all to help her prepare an audition for “The Belle of New Orleans,” a film set in the Antebellum South that could save Gloria’s flagging career. Gloria hopes to play the role of Marie, an octoroon whose “tainted blood” is a secret that that, once exposed, will ruin her life. Ironically, the studio has only agreed to do the movie if a white actress plays the role – a nod to the Hays Code that was gaining momentum in Hollywood. (This points to the film “Show Boat,” in which Ava Gardner was given a leading role better suited to Lena Horne.) There’s also a part in the movie that Vera would love to have; it’s only the role of a house slave, Tilly, but Vera believes she could bring a little something extra to the role.
As we learn more about Vera, we quickly see that she is a triple threat who can sing, dance, act dramatically or ham it up on demand. She has everything she needs to be a star, except a chance at a starring role and a reluctance to play the fool. In 1930s-era Hollywood, there are no starring roles for people of color.
When we follow Vera home and meet her two roommates, Lottie (Antonia LaChe) and Anna Mae (Tiffany Michelle Thompson), we learn that all three are actresses with considerable talent and few opportunities. Anna Mae is improving her odds by passing as a Brazilian hottie and throwing herself in the path of studio hotshots.
Later, when Lottie helps Vera serve at a Hollywood dinner party hosted by Gloria, the women are stunned when roommate Anna Mae sashays into the room on the arm of the foreign director Max (Nick Stockwell), who has been hired to direct “The Belle of New Orleans.” Vera and Lottie object to Anna Mae’s ruse, but keep her secret. And both shamelessly pander to Max and the studio head Slasvick (Cody Robison) for a shot at a movie role. As Vera suddenly assumes the character of a shuffling, ignorant, well-meaning, loyal servant who’s suffered much but just keeps on singing, we laugh and shudder at the same time. She has made a choice. At the end of the first act, Vera confesses to her musician friend Leroy (Brandon A. Wright) that there isn’t anything she wouldn’t do for a shot at stardom. Defiantly, she declares, “tonight I crossed a bridge, and I’m telling you, I ain’t going back!”
The second act opens with the screening of the final scene of “The Belle of New Orleans” in which Gloria, Vera, Anna Mae and Lottie all have roles. We laugh at the stylized nature of acting in the film, but are struck by Vera’s nuanced performance as Tilly. As the house lights come up, we find ourselves positioned as the audience at a modern Hollywood colloquium about “Rediscovering Vera Stark.” The three academic lecturers on stage (played with hilarious pomposity by Wright, LaChe and Thompson) analyze, theorize and pontificate on Vera’s tortuous career path – alternately characterizing her as a victim, as a revolutionary and as a sell-out. Did her heavy drinking kill her career? Or did she drink to swallow the pain of career-killing roles? Was her plain-speaking the defiance of a civil rights champion, or the bitter lashing out of a guilt-riddled woman? What the colloquium “experts” agree on is that Vera Stark’s final years are shrouded in mystery, and they are eager to sift through the clues. A highlight of this second act is the live recreation of a 1973 TV talk show “film clip” featuring a smarmy host (Robison), a groovy rock star (Stockwell), and the unexpected reunion of aging actresses Gloria and Vera. Sparks fly. There’s also a touching film clip with Vera’s ex-husband, Leroy (Wright) that fills in more of Vera’s painful backstory.
By The Way, Meet Vera Stark walks a taut tightrope between stereotypes and commentary on stereotypes, and director Hines unflinchingly uses this tension to command our attention. Her actors invite us to laugh with them, even as we cringe at their plight. This play demands tight ensemble work, and the Hilberry company clearly embraces it. Each actor has fine moments, but we especially admire the dynamic range of Breayre Tender as Vera, and Brandon A. Wright as the jazz musician who loves her and hates Hollywood.
Scenic Designer Katie Link has created an Art Deco wonder that uses rotating set pieces, framed within a film emporium, to echo the capricious nature of “reality” in a world where everyone passes for something else. The design team also includes Haley Cavanaugh (Costumes), Natalie Colony (Lighting), and Dan Morency (Sound). Kudos to the team that worked with Hines on the cinematic elements of this show – they are stirring.
This is a play that any modern audience can enjoy; it offers quality entertainment with balanced moments of comedy and righteous indignation. Film buffs and students of race history will find it especially poignant. The magic of this play is how it engages the audience in peeling back the story’s layers – only to discover that the back story is the real story. A final ironic twist rewards our interest. Who can judge Vera Stark or the choices she made? The tragedy and the triumph that play out on the Hilberry stage belong not only to our fictional heroine, but to all too many real people, past and present. We all bear witness.