Thursday, February 28, 2019

172 (2018-2019): Review: BY THE WAY, MEET VERA STARK (seen February 27, 2019)

“Slaves with Lines!”

Am I an admirer of Lynn Nottage, the two-time Pulitzer-winning (for Ruined and Sweat), socially relevant playwright now enjoying a Residency 1 season at the Signature Theatre? Am I also fascinated  by old movies, the mostly black and white ones you see on TMC? And does film history and its sociological implications turn me on? The answer to all three is yes. So why, although I really looked forward to our meeting, did the Signature’s revival of Nottage’s 2011 By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, a satirically serious look at Hollywood’s treatment of black actresses, do so only half way?
Jessica Frances Dukes, Jenni Barber. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Inspired by the careers of early black film actresses, like Hattie McDaniel and Theresa Harris, By the Way, Meet Vera Stark begins in 1933. Aspiring black actress Vera Stark (Jessica Frances Dukes, Is God Is), young and attractive, is the friend and maid of the hard-drinking, air-headed, Jean Harlow-ish, platinum-blonde Gloria Mitchell (Jenni Barber, Wicked).
Jessica Frances Dukes, Heather Alicia Simms. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Gloria, “America’s Little Sweetie Pie,” who’s anxious to break into serious roles, lives in a fashionable art deco home, while Vera shares a plain, small flat with two other black actresses, the plump Lottie McBride (Heather Alicia Simms, Fabulation, or the Re-Education of Undine) and the slenderly sexy Anna Mae Simpkins (Carra Patterson, Jitney). The latter’s so fair-skinned she passes herself off as a heavily accented Brazilian sexpot on a date with a German director, Maximillian Von Oster (Manoel Felciano, Sweeney Todd). Vera, meanwhile, has a flirtation with Leroy Barksdale (Warner Miller), a slickly dressed chauffeur and musician.
Warner Miller, Jessica Frances Dukes. Photo: Joan Marcus.
During a party at Gloria’s home, serviced by Lottie and Vera, dressed as maids, the egotistical Von Oster—accompanied by the be-gowned Anna Mae—quarrels with the crass studio head, Mr. Slasvick (David Turner, Sunday in the Park with George), over how the slaves are to be depicted (happy or downtrodden) in the director’s ambitious new antebellum plantation movie, The Belle of New Orleans.
David Turner, Jenni Barber, Carra Patterson, Manoel Felciano, Jessica Frances Dukes. Photo: Joan Marcus.

David Turner, Manoel Felciano. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Hoping to land parts in this pre-Hays Code film in which the blacks will have richer roles (“slaves with lines!”) than those of the slaves they typically get in such projects, Lottie and Vera put on fake accents and slumping postures to prove to the director they’ve got the beaten, slave-descended, Negro “authenticity” he’s seeking, i.e., centuries “of oppression in the hunch of their shoulders.”
Jessica Frances Dukes, Jenni Barber, Heather Alicia Simms. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Act Two of the two hour and 15-minute play shifts gears grindingly, not unlike the recent Slave Play. It begins with the closing scene of Von Oster’s The Belle of New Orleans, a stereotypically sentimental deathbed scene, filmed in black and white. In it, the octoroon heroine, played by Gloria, passes away as her comforting servant, played by Vera, who—in her star-making but career-shackling performance—watches over her. Standing by are characters played by Anna Mae and Lottie.
Warner Miller. Photo: Joan Marcus.
We’re watching it because it’s being screened as part of a 2003 symposium called “Rediscovering Vera Stark: The Legacy of The Belle of New Orleans,” in which two pretentious, perfectly-named, bickering discussants, journalist-poet-performer Afua Assata Ejobo (Patterson) and media-gender studies professor Carmen Levy-Green (Simms), are hosted by self-important film maven Herb Forester (Miller).
Carra Patterson, Heather Alicia Simms, Warner Miller. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The panel’s comically pretentious discussion of Vera and whatever happened to her mingles with their commentary on a TV show from 1973—40 years after the movie. Hosted by the Johnny Carson-like Brad Donovan (Turner), it features the last recorded appearance of Vera Stark, now a flamboyantly dressed, antiquated, tippling actress-singer, who sounds like Katharine Hepburn but whose talent Hollywood neglected to develop. Dukes, required to overact in Act One, redeems herself brilliantly as Act Two’s doomed star-who-should-have-been.
David Turner, Jessica Frances Dukes, Manoel Felciano. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The innocuous interview fails to explore Stark’s important story, and, in the interests of popular appeal rather than meaningful discussion, provides a surprise, not altogether welcome, visit from the self-aggrandizing Gloria. Sitting by is another guest, Peter Rhys-Davies (Felciano), a zonked-out British rock star who does all he can to keep from falling out of his chair.
Jessica Frances Dukes, Jenni Barber. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Finally, the play concludes with a flashy montage, designed by Katherine Freer, of noteworthy actresses of color, like McDaniel and Butterfly McQueen. whose many faces go by so fast it becomes impossible to recognize them.

Nottage’s intelligence, wit, and craftsmanship are writ large throughout the play, but its stylistic leaps along the spectrum from farce to realism do little to draw one into its world and lots to keep one at a distance. Nor does director Kamilah Forbes’s attractively mounted but barely nuanced production manage to find a tone that consistently ties its disparate scenes together.

With a few exceptions, the approach is forced farce, seeking laughs by egregiously overstated comic acting, and excessive shouting, which pulls focus from Nottage’s ideas. It’s the kind of thing that Spike Lee might have pulled off; instead, like the improvised audition scene, it comes off here more like a cartoon of a cartoon. (It’s also yet another production demonstrating my pet peeve about the lost art of onstage cigarette smoking.)

Set designer Clint Ramos avoids the full use of the very wide Irene Diamond Stage by introducing a space-delimiting, semicircular cyclorama to partially surround a turntable holding expertly realized locales: movie-star chic, Depression-period digs, a sound stage exterior, and 70s talk-show overkill. Dede M. Ayite’s costumes offer period-crossing eye candy, Matt Frey’s lighting ties it all together, and both Mikaal Sulaiman’s sound design and Daniel Kluger’s music make solid contributions.  

If you’re uninterested in this production or unable to attend, you can get Nottage’s point much more succinctly by clicking on two dryly amusing, tongue-in-cheek, metatheatrical websites, Finding Vera Stark, credited to the faux Prof. Levy-Green, with its faux-biography of Vera and faux-trailer for The Belle of New Orleans, and Rediscovering Vera Stark, narrated by Peter Bogdanovich who's credited as the faux-Herb Forrester. One wonders if a similarly straight-faced comedic production might not have provided a more appropriate theatrical meeting with By the Way, Meet Vera Stark.

Pershing Square Signature Center/Irene Diamond Stage
480 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through March 10