“Vera Stark”: My FT Review

Here’s my FT review of Lynn Nottage’s new play, “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark.” By the way, Miss Oprah Winfrey is considering making her Broadway debut in Nottage’s 2009 play, “Ruined.” Full “Vera” review also after the jump.

The title character of By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, Lynn Nottage’s terrifically entertaining new play at Second Stage, is an African-American performer who longs to be cast in Hollywood pictures. The year, however, is 1933, which means the only roles open to Vera are domestics.

Still, she perseveres. Her reasoning is not just the old-school excuse of Hattie McDaniel, who won an Oscar playing Mammy in Gone with the Wind and said: “I’d rather make $700 a week playing a maid than earn $7 a day being a maid.” Vera’s ambition also involves dream fulfilment – the desire to succeed in an art form that, she says, is made up of “shadows and light”.

Vera works as a maid for Gloria Mitchell, a fading silent-screen star who is trying to re-emerge by landing the lead role in the antebellum epic The Belle of New Orleans. While running lines with Gloria, portrayed by the slightly miscast Stephanie J. Block (a performer more at ease in musicals than in straight comedy), Stark decides to bid for the role of the mixed-race Belle’s sister. Vera is chided for her ambition by Leroy Barksdale, a jazzy composer, portrayed by Daniel Breaker. “Why we still playing slaves?” he asks. “It was hard enough getting free the first time.”

In Vera Stark, playwright Nottage shows herself to be as comfortable in frisky comedy as she is in heart-tearing drama – she wrote Ruined, a prize-laden piece about rape in Congo. The laugh-detonating scenes in the new play involve Vera and Lottie, a performer forced into menial work and given a winking big-mama gutsiness by Kimberly Hebert Gregory. Hired hands secretly deriding their employers is hardly news. But Vera Stark lets us know in fresh fashion what opportunity-deprived actors of colour may have said when the golden-era stars were out of earshot.

Vera Stark loses buoyancy in its second half, when 21st-century scholars convene a conference to “unpack” Stark’s career via clips of her appearance on a 1973 chat show. The larger-than-life acting style of the production, so well steered by director Jo Bonney in act one, devolves into flat cartoonishness.

Only Sanaa Lathan, as Vera, sustains a first-rate performance. She transfixes both as a lovely young woman and as a ravaged has-been.

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