With By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, playwright Lynn Nottage followed her weightier, Congo-set Pulitzer Prize-winning Ruined with another work that asks tough questions about black history; specifically about how the stories of African-Americans have been told in this country, post slavery.
Vera Stark, played by Yolonda Williams in its area premiere at Theatre Three, is a black actress in 1930s Hollywood whose breakout role comes in the movie The Belle of New Orleans. Of course, she’s the maid to the film’s title character, played by “sweetheart” actress Gloria Mitchell (Lee Jamison). The director, Maximillian von Oster (Aaron Roberts), sees Vera at a party at Gloria’s house and recognizes her ability to erase “her people’s pain” via the blues, and therefore tell “the story of the South.”
It’s a role Vera, not to mention her roommates Lottie (a scene-stealing Stormi Demerson) and Anna Mae (Raven Garcia) are too willing to play into, knowing that a well-paying job can only be good news for their futures. If they have to “throw on a headrag and play a slave,” they will. So what if it minimizes the very real tragedy that was slavery — which is what Hollywood directors were all too willing to do?
But in the second act, Nottage’s play takes a tricky turn, moving the action forward to a 2003 panel discussion about Stark’s career, with flashbacks to a 1973 talk show that featured Stark and, because talk show guests can be random, rock star Peter Rhys-Davies (Roberts).
Throughout the talk-show scenes, and in the film clip we see from The Belle of New Orleans (filmed and edited beautifully by sound designer Rich Frohlich), the opportunities to turn take the satire into the realm of parody is a real temptation — one that doesn’t escape director Bruce R. Coleman.
Coleman and the cast live up to Nottage’s stage directions that act one should be fast-paced and whimsical, and that act two is also “breathless.” But she warns against parody in favor of staying true to the comic sensibilities of each era.
Jamison, in the film footage, and Paul J. Williams, in the second act as talk show host Brad Donovan, go ever-so-slightly over the line with their respective styles, and Roberts is right on the line as Rhys-Davies. It’s a thin line, but enough to diminish the larger, poignant questions of Nottage’s play.
There are more subtle choices Coleman makes that work better, such as Williams’ voice by the time we get to the 1970s. At that point, she had become a star, performing in nightclubs around the world. Williams now sports one of those faux, almost-British accents, affected by years of being a part of the fabulous jet set.
Williams, gives a lovely, earthy performance throughout, with her and the equally terrific Calvin Roberts (as a potential suitor in the first act, and the overly excited panel moderator in the second) bring the proceedings back, closer to the ground. Of course, maybe that’s Coleman’s idea: If we have seen black actors play the “sassy sidekick” to white actors for way too long, maybe it’s time to turn the tables.
It’s a strange play that goes to unexpected places for a bit too long, but even with its and the production’s flaws, Theatre Three gives Vera Stark an introduction she deserves.