Sunday, October 7, 2012

Humor in Spades in 'By The Way, Meet Vera Stark'

Vera Stark (Sanaa Lathan), center, is flanked by two very inquiring minds (Spencer Garrett and Mather Zickel) in “By The Way, Meet Vera Stark.” Photos by Michael Lamont.

BY TAMARA BECK

THE
distance between being a maid and playing a maid may be short. Going from there to Hollywood stardom covers a lot of Jim Crow miles.

The distance is the story of the seven-decade journey of the titular character from black maid and bit actor to legend in Lynn Nottage’s “By The Way, Meet Vera Stark.”

LN’s dignified satire is enjoying a West Coast premiere at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles through 28 Oct. The play had its world premiere at New York’s Second Stage Theatre last spring.

Vera Stark’s (Sanaa Lathan) off-handed introduction comes soon after the lush purple plisse curtain rises to reveal her reading lines with her employer, Gloria Mitchell (Amanda Detmer takes over the role in LA). They are both preparing to audition for roles in a film called “The Belle of New Orleans.”

Gloria, once “America’s little sweetie-pie,” resents having to try out for a part. She also resists putting in a good word for Vera, though both women win their respective roles. The script offers a meatier part than was usually given to black actors in Old Hollywood. Act 2 of “By The Way, Meet Vera Stark” reveals a part of the film that features them.

Like Vera, her roommates, Lottie (Kimberly H├ębert Gregory) and Anna Mae (Merle Dandridge in the LA transfer), are also underutilized black actresses working day jobs to make ends meet.

The New York cast of “By The Way, Meet Vera Stark” was superb. SL, who is reprising her role, gives a flawlessly intelligent portrayal of Vera over the decades. (See video and tributes to the fictional Vera Stark above.)

Gloria (Amanda Detmer) and Vera (Sanaa Lathan) have a complicated relationship in “By The Way, Meet Vera Stark.”

Fast forward to 2003 where historian and filmmaker Herb Forrester (Kevin Carroll) has assembled a panel to find out “What happened to Vera Stark?” As part of this exploration, the panelists analyze a video of a 1973 TV interview in which a drunk and defiant Vera defends her choice of roles. As a celebrity, she is a shadow of the hopeful and bold young woman she was in 1933.

Did Vera Stark advance the careers of black actors or did she pander to the low standards and pigeonholing roles set by film makers?

Anna Mae (Merle Dandridge), Lottie (Kimberly Hebert Gregory) and Vera (Sanaa Lathan) are Hollywood working girls in “By The Way, Meet Vera Stark.”

“By The Way, Meet Vera Stark” is a funny play, styled LN says, as “a screwball comedy.” Indeed, it is an unusual, albeit coherent work. It is also deeply discerning and touching.

Visit http://www.geffenplayhouse.com/ to learn more about “By The Way, Meet Vera Stark”



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