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Thursday, May 5, 2011

By the Way, Meet Vera Stark

Sanaa Lathan as Vera Stark

2econdStageTheatre's new production, By the Way, Meet Vera Stark is the latest play by Lynn Nottage, who won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2009 for Ruined.

Ruined was a very heavy drama, and Meet Vera Stark has more of a comedic touch- at least during the first act. Vera is an African- American maid working for actress Gloria Mitchell (the wonderful Stephanie J. Block), once America's little princess, now desperately trying to hold on to her career in the 1930s.

Vera, played by the luminous and brilliant Sanaa Lathan, is an actress too, but parts for her are more difficult to come by. And the only ones available are for maids or slaves. When Gloria auditions for a big Southern epic (ala Gone With the Wind), Vera sees an opportunity for her to play the important role of the maid/best friend to the protagonist, and asks Gloria to help her, which Gloria brushes aside.

It is hinted that Vera and Gloria have a closer relationship than employer-employee, and that is developed more deeply in Act II. Act I is more of screwball comedy from the 1930s or 40s, with gorgeous dresses, the helpless, self-involved star, an African-American friend of Vera's (the versatile, funny and gorgeous Karen Olivo) passing herself off as a Brazilian actress to date the director of the movie, Kimberly Hebert Gregory playing a friend of Vera's who frequently breaks into a version of "Let My People Go", and Vera exaggeratedly acting the part of the subservient Southern maid to get the role in the movie.

I saw the show with an audience filled with high school students, and they enthusiastically reacted, laughing and applauding at the action on the stage. They especially liked Gregory's performance, perhaps because they know women just like her sassy character.

Act II has a much more serious tone. It is present day and three academics discuss Vera Stark's career. They review Vera's last appearance in 1973 on The Ben Donovan Show (think Mike Douglas/Merv Griffin). The show-within-a-play is an intriguing concept, and it works well here.

Vera is much older, and Lathan is remarkable in this Act. She plays a defiant, tough, possibly drunk  Vera in Act II, as opposed to the sunny, lively, younger Vera from Act I.

We see how difficult it was for Vera to find good work after her breakout role, and when Gloria shows up, the contrast between their lives and careers is stark. The only difference between them is their skin color, but that difference made all the difference in Vera's life. We learn more about Gloria and Vera's past connection as the academics debate about what really happened to Vera Stark.

The play is brilliantly written by Nottage, who transitions from comedy to drama to great effect. It has a lot to say about what it meant to be black in America at that time, and the price one pays in deciding whether to or not to be true to oneself.

The roles for women in this play are layered and rich and,  Lathan, Block, Gregory and Olivo make the most of them, with Gregory and Olivo playing multiple, diverse roles. The use of film in the show is well done, as we get to see part of the film, The Belle of New Orleans, at the center of this story.

I would say that By the Way, Meet Vera Stark is a nearly-perfect piece of theater. It succeeds on so many levels, and leaves you with much to contemplate as you leave the theater. It runs through May 29th at 2econdStageTheatre on 43rd & 8th Ave. If you love good theater, do not miss this one.


  1. Vera Stark's story continues at www.meetverastark.com, which includes Vera's filmography and a short documentary about her breakthrough role in The Belle of New Orleans.

    - Herb Forrester