By The Way, Meet Vera Stark: My Review

Categories: Theater

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I recently turned on TCM and caught a wildly campy Civil War epic called Band of Angels, with Yvonne De Carlo as a Southern belle who finds out she's part black and she ain't happy about it!

I wonder if Pulitzer-winning playwright Lynn Nottage (Ruined) saw it, because her new work deals with just that kind of out-there racial melodrama, though in this case, the film is made in the 1930s, not the '50s.

Nottage's play is a screwball satire that starts out in '30s Hollywood, where the title character (Sanaa Lathan) is a maid to Gloria Mitchell, a movie star fondly known as "America's little sweetie pie" (Stephanie J. Block).

In one of the play's many parallels, Vera lands the role of Gloria's servant in the film The Belle of New Orleans, about an unwitting octoroon!

Act One has Vera and her roommate Lottie (a hilariously sassy Kimberly Hebert Gregory) and friend (Tony winner Karen Olivo) engaging in all kinds of trickery and manipulation to fit just the kinds of racial stereotypes Hollywood requires in order to give you screen time.

"Slaves with lines?" says Lottie when Vera tells her about the Belle script.

"Slaves with lines, honey!" she responds, triumphantly.

And when Lathan acts out some my-midwife-died-when-I-was-born hard-luck story to impress the pretentious movie director and win the part, you're gagging with both amusement and empathy.

In Act Two, the tone should deepen, but it stays satirical and surfacey.

Three pompous experts look back on Vera's legacy and disagree as to whether she was a beacon of ingenuity who helped moved things forward or a disgrace to her race who fueled the machine by perpetuating stereotypes.

By this point, the play has thrown too many points of view at us in a tone that occasionally feels undernourished and smirky.

But there's a lot of insight and hilarity (the first half feels very Carol Burnett sketch by way of Charles Busch) and you can't deny the truth in this observation about Hollywood's enslavement of black actors:

"It was hard enough getting free the first damned time!"

The evening -- directed by Jo Bonney -- isn't perfect, but for history's sake, I'm glad I met Vera Stark.


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9 comments
Aliamarshall
Aliamarshall

This is the story of my mother VERA FRANCIS of Boston who is 86 YEARS OLD AND STILL ALIVE. She played a maid who Andrew Jackson slept with in th e film All the President's Ladies> a film that the NAACP protested> she was in Amos and Andy, Kismit, 10 comamdments, Carmen Jones ans d a bunch of other movies. Google her> much more dirt to the life of a 30s  black DIVA, movie material, the stories i could tell....Lynn Nottage's new play By the Way Meet Vera Stark. 

Dana
Dana

Isn't "latenitebump" the same idiot who complains when there are no black people in a blog??

And then you write about a play with a black cast by a Pulitzer winning black playwright, and it's play mocking racism, and "latenitebump" mocks it and puts it down!!!

All credibility is now lost--not that there was any in the first place.

"Shut up" is right.

latenitebump
latenitebump

wow! what a revelation!

i think the play the colored museum addressed that issue along time.

i think danitra vance addressed the same issue in a satirical skit on saturday night live.

another a pbs special commentated by esther role. bell hooks addressed that issue.

spike lee bamboozled.

when are they going to bring giovanni´s room to broadway by james baldwin?

Musto
Musto

Shut up, asshole. It's a play that skewers racism in Hollywood and how they forced black people to play maids and slaves. It's written by the premiere African American playwright. And you're complaining about it?? You are so dumb you're a discredit to the human race.

latenitebump
latenitebump

another picture of a maid. wow! gee! the outfit looks nice. who´s the dsigner?

the house of k? as in klan? ku klux?

the play seems witty alright, honey!

oh! i forgot!

ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZz

mjm
mjm

Band of Angels and Raintree County (w/ Liz Taylor doing her best Miss Scarlett) had basically the same plot and neither one did well.

Riverdance
Riverdance

I liked Sanaa Lathan in "Raisin in the Sun" and look forward to seeing her in this play.

Bilge
Bilge

Your reviews are succinct and measured and give a good sense of the show. Thank you.

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