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'By the Way, Meet Vera Stark' (review): A comedic look at racial stereotypes

The Ensemble Theatre (Houston, TX): Actress Michelle Elaine as the title character in the glamorously funny play, "By the Way, Meet Vera Stark," by Pulitzer prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage.
The Ensemble Theatre (Houston, TX): Actress Michelle Elaine as the title character in the glamorously funny play, "By the Way, Meet Vera Stark," by Pulitzer prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage.

On its last week at The Ensemble Theatre, "By the Way, Meet Vera Stark" is a comedy that will get you laughing and thinking. It's a multimedia production that offers stage action intermixed with recorded video. It's an innovative addition to modern theater.

An off Broadway hit by Pulitzer Prize winning writer Lynn Nottage makes it regional debut. She writes a poignant and hard hitting look at stereotypes, racism and what we do with our lives. The Ensemble crew does a skillful job bringing the play to life. The costuming by costume designer, Shirley Whitmore and sets by scenic designer James V. Thomas, are beautiful and fit perfectly with the story. Despite the creative team going the extra mile with the addition of video clips in the play, it seemed to be a bit of a struggle for the them. There were a few lighting issues and wrong cues where lights would go down and come back up or the house lights would come up while Stark was in a tender moment. Although not throughout the play, these moments it draw unnecessary attention away from the performance and left audiences feeling confused and a bit disappointed for the interruption from what we were seeing on stage.

The production opens with a video which highlights photos of women of color in the performing arts and prepares the audience for the show they will see. This play spans almost 70 years taking us through the life of Vera Stark, played by Michelle Elaine, who is a fictional African American woman who works as a maid yet has actress aspirations to a rich starlet and actress Gloria Mitchell, played by Elizabeth Marshall Black. Audiences are taken through the life of Stark as we see her struggle to maintain her “place” all the while dreaming of her name in lights, like most that travel out to Hollywood.

This play as mentioned above spans decades and so in this audiences get to see the changes or lack thereof of stereotypes for African-American actresses or actors in Hollywood. It’s a hard hitting play that has spot on comedic typing both from the script and skillfully executed performances. Elaine as Stark steals the show as she plays the title character and is a central highlight for the performance. She will blow you away with her big voice in various musical moments and also in her transformation as we see all sides of personality. She is surrounded by just as strong a supporting cast.

Playwright Nottage did an unbelievable job of creating perfect balance in her script or as another theater patron commented “it was very well rounded”. If Stark is the character to highlight the stereotypes of Hollywood and society, then the starlet she is the maid for in the opening of the play “America’s little sweetheart” Mitchell is the stereotype of the racist society. Their interactions mix the tensions of white and black society that are still present even in modern day.

The story hinges on Stark getting a big break in a role opposite her “boss” Mitchell as a maid, of course, in a movie that really starts her career in movies. Ironically, for her character it becomes a past she can’t escape. The scene as they discuss the movie with the studio agent Frederick Slavick played by Kevin Daugherty and director Maxillian Von Oster, played by Roy Hamiln is another perfect pairing. These two highlight the struggles of the studio presenting movies that are fun and feature white actors/actresses and a director who dreams of a more equal and artistic look at society.

Overall, this play takes a real look at society and their stereotypes. It is just as hard hitting today because many of these issues are still central to our society. Nottage does an amazing job of creating a play that is multicultural and has vast audience appeal. It’s a play that at the surface can offer you some laughs and fun but at its heart is a gritty, honest and raw look at society. In the second act, we catch up with characters in a more modern setting, as they discuss the impact of Stark on Hollywood. It’s a modern interview of panelist who examines Stark's last interview and debate about her impact on history. It brings that poignant and raw feel back to the play front and center. “History is a question constantly being rephrased,” is one of the last lines audiences are left with as the play comes to a close and we take those words to contemplate the mystery and impact of Vera Stark on our own.

Playing through April 13th at The Ensemble Theatre there is still time to see this play before its final curtain call. For ticket information, visit www.EnsembleHouston.com. For additional information concerning this play or others at the theater you can always call 713-520-0055. To see what is coming next visit their site for their season line up. Don't miss your chance to see this show or upcoming before their season ends.