Vicki Paris Goodman
With her 2011 play By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, playwright Lynn Nottage takes a light-hearted view of the limited roles available to black actors in the 1930s while still getting her point across. Taken together, the two acts comprise a bit of a multi-media extravaganza that separates the two distinct time periods depicted in the play by 40 years.
A glowing Adanna Kenlow plays the young, smart and optimistic 1930s-era Vera, whose ambition to be a successful Hollywood actress stays focused in the face of monumental obstacles. Vera is maid and friend to well-known actress Gloria Mitchell (Sierra Marcks), who struggles to keep her own career from imminent decline.
By play’s end, the two actresses have made a number of movies together, with Vera always in the role of a maid. Of course, the maid is never a central character in the films, and thus never has a story of her own. The fact that the earlier real-life roles of employer Gloria and maid Vera mirror the future on-screen roles of the two actresses should not be lost on the audience, either.
The play’s first act finds Vera stereotypically putting Gloria’s audition needs ahead of her own. But she still finds ways to further her own chances. For one, she meets her future husband Leroy (Bryan Allen Taylor), an assistant to a famous director, on a studio backlot during one of Gloria’s auditions. Some interesting chemistry develops, but the 40-year period that includes their relationship and ultimately failed marriage is mentioned only in brief hindsight in the second act.
Another first-act scene introduces Vera’s roommates Lottie and Anna Mae, two other struggling black actresses played by Latonya Kitchen and Veronica Simms, respectively. In these two, we see the anger missing from Vera’s upbeat persona. The very attractive Anna Mae takes advantage of her lighter skin and fine features to feign “whiteness” and win the affection of a famous director (Robert Agiu). Kitchen’s Lottie, now approaching middle age, laments her more successful past, convincing us of the fact by acting out a brief passage from a prior role and demonstrating her substantial singing bona fides.
By the end of the first act the action had begun to drag a little, but not irredeemably, as I still wanted very much to find out what came next in Vera’s pursuit of an acting career.
Nottage’s creative second act changes things up considerably. It is now 2003, and a college-level film class discussion group featuring a moderator (Taylor) and two experts (Kitchen and Simms) looks back at a 1970s television interview of Vera (now played by Veronica Bryant) and Gloria (now played by Lorraine Winslow), who haven’t seen each other in decades.
Director Greg Cohen should have taken the play’s second act as seriously as the first.
Simm’s character, an intimidating lesbian and radicalized gender-studies professor, gives a mostly unintelligible analysis, while Kitchen’s equally self-confident but more measured character offers a somewhat more reasonable critique. Both leave Taylor’s character at a loss for words.
Skip Blas, who in the first act plays a studio head with little tolerance for social obligations, also takes on the second act role of 1970s talk show host Brad Donovan. Blas’s Donovan exemplifies the parody that characterizes the second half, but Blas employs the self-restraint needed to avoid taking his role over the top.
Blas’s performances are always pitch perfect, and this is no exception. But alas, his disciplined effort is not sufficient to rescue the production from a second act that Cohen allows to descend into sheer silliness, unbefitting of a first act that deserved so much better.
Although we are satisfied that Vera did achieve as successful a career as was possible for a black actress during the 1930s, the ups and downs of her life were communicated in Nottage’s inadequate mere footnotes during the Donovan show interview. Even more disappointing, the play’s presumed primary message – that Vera’s roles, however well acted, were ultimately shallow, her characters undeveloped – was almost entirely lost here. A shame.
By the Way, Meet Vera Stark continues on the Long Beach Playhouse Mainstage through Saturday, May 9. Tickets are $24 general admission, $21 for seniors and $14 for students with valid ID. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, with Sunday matinees at 2pm. The Long Beach Playhouse is located at 5021 E. Anaheim St. Call (562) 494-1014, option 1, for reservations and information. Tickets are also available online at lbplayhouse.org .