Some plays are written so you can just tell, “the conversation” (as they say these days) is supposed to begin with the after-show coffee. Lynn Nottage's By the Way, Meet Vera Stark is a very lively, beguiling portrait of an African American actress , whose star begins to rise the same time as her friend, Gloria Mitchell. (Vera Stark feels like Imitation of Life, without the pathos.) Ostensibly, Vera is the traditional housekeeper (nurturer, healer, domestic pragmatist) who holds together the fragile, neurotic white diva. When both Gloria and Vera are cast in the same film (similar, in some ways, to Gone With the Wind) Vera's talents begin to emerge, despite the exceptional difficulties she faces as a black actress in an industry dominated by white patriarchs.
Essentially, the first act of Vera Stark is exposition. We see Vera run lines with Gloria, pick the right dress, supply cocktails, and basically, keep her emotionally afloat. But, just like everyone else in 1933 Hollywood, Vera is looking for her big break. We see her at home, with friend, Lottie, and neighbor, Anna Mae, hustling to pay the rent, comparing notes, and keeping an ear to the ground for casting opportunities. Much of the action seems to turn on a new film that will include choice roles for African American talent. Gloria is fortuitously entertaining the producer and director at a party in her home, the same night Vera and Lottie are lending a hand with the guests. In one of Vera Stark's best moments, Vera must help Anna Mae (who's passing for another race) with the fur that she actually lent her.
The second act revolves on a documentary show in which several experts speculate on Vera Stark's career, while screening key scenes from her watershed film, and a talk show interview in where she and Gloria locked horns and she nearly reveals something earth-shattering. Were Vera And Gloria cousins? Lovers? Was Gloria an octaroon off screen? Why did black actors settle for playing degrading roles, “back in the day”? What were Vera and Gloria feuding about? Why did Vera move to Europe?
At first Vera Stark seems like a roman a' clef, examining the life of someone like Eartha Kitt, Hattie McDaniel, Lena Horne, but eventually it feels like an amalgamation. Lynn Nottage has created the perfect storm. By constructing the life of Vera, an admirable, talented, formidable lady who never rose as high as she might have in the Hollywood canon, we can consider the issues that plagued black actors (and certainly all African Americans) and continues to do so. By deconstructing Vera Stark, we realize we can never really know who she was. Lynn Nottage has woven an exceptional narrative, both entertaining and enigmatic, elucidating and perplexing. But under the circumstances, isn't dissatisfaction the best result?
Theatre 3 presents By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, playing June 19th through July 13th, 2014. 2800 Routh Street, Suite 168, Dallas, Texas 75201. 214-870-3300. www.theatre3dallas.com.