The original production of Lynn Nottage’s By The Way, Meet Vera Stark was a 2011 hit and, truthfully, it’s a tough act to follow. A sumptuous Second Stage premiere designed by Neil Patel, it matched gorgeous visuals with an astonishingly stacked cast: Sanaa Lathan, Stephanie J. Block, Daniel Breaker, and Karen Olivo among them. Director Jo Bonney successfully balanced the play’s sharp tonal shifts, bouncing smoothly from tragedy to farce. By all rights that production should have had a future life, possibly on Broadway.
Instead the play is back in a revival, part of the playwright’s current residency at Signature Theatre. In some ways, it’s strangely early to bring back Vera Stark. Nottage’s Intimate Apparel, which I would love to see, first played New York seven years earlier. Then again, Signature’s new production of Vera Stark shows that this strange, electric play has only gained in relevance.
Vera Stark is a young aspiring African American actress in 1930s Hollywood, toiling as a maid to movie star Gloria Mitchell (a glorious Jenni Barber). When Vera learns that Mitchell’s next picture gives a servant a significant role (“Slaves? With lines?”), Vera sets her sights on the part. The first act plays in the style of screwball comedy, as Vera fights to be noticed by Hollywood’s white gatekeepers. Meanwhile, the second act jumps forward to 2003, as an academic panel considers Vera’s legacy in Hollywood, specifically through the prism of a messy 1973 talk show appearance.
The sharp, witty farce of the first act is more formally familiar, and should be easier to pull off. But director Kamilah Forbes seems strangely ill at ease with the play’s comedy. Scenes that should fly by seem to stumble along; the classic rat-a-tat screwball style is only sometimes present. The pace issues are not helped by a cumbersome revolving set. Strangely, scenic designer Clint Ramos has opted to shrink the Irene Diamond stage, using barely more than half of it. Locations that should feel grand and opulent, like Mitchell’s home, instead evoke a miniature set model.
If the style isn’t quite there, though, the performances help make up the difference. Heather Alicia Simms and Cara Patterson are note-perfect as Vera’s roommates, while Warner Miller oozes charm as Vera’s love interest, Leroy. Barber happily chomps scenery as Mitchell, and smartly underplays her strangely intimate dynamic with Vera. The role of Vera herself demands a tour de force, and Jessica Frances Dukes mostly delivers–though like the production, she is stronger in the second act.
Forbes has a tighter handle on that second act–ironically, since it is where things get weird. The scene shifts to an event hall, where a mansplaining academic bloviates on Vera’s legacy. He then leads a panel on a timely question: Did Vera doom her own career, or were institutional factors set against her? Forbes wisely plays down Nottage’s mockery of the panelists, which is overblown in the script. They are still pretentious, sure, but this production also takes their ideas seriously. The key question is fascinating: Did Vera silently comment on her own oppression within seemingly “mammy-ish” roles? Or was she simply trying to get work, and get by?
Even having spent an act with Vera, the answers are not clear to us. We have mostly seen her as necessarily guarded: ambitious, yes, but always conscious of her precarious position. Dukes plays that restraint beautifully, but Act Two also gives her a chance to let loose. The panelists turn to watching a drunken talk show appearance from late in Vera’s waning career. Embittered but still radiant, the sixty-eight-year-old Vera holds far less back: “I played a slave woman bound to her mistress, and here all of these years later, I find myself bound to Tilly. I wish I could shake that silly little wench out of me.”
The talk show scenes are wondrous, not just for Nottage’s reflections on an industry that continually squanders its Vera Starks. The bigger wonder is that Nottage also refuses to romanticize Vera. She is far too complex to be simply a tragic figure. When she defends Leroy for a violent act he later committed, it speaks to an understanding of the rage that years of oppression can engender. Vera herself has continued to try and play the game. She can understand, though, why some might hit their limits.
Yet there is joy, as well. In a poignant final scene, Nottage returns us to the 1930s for a quiet moment between Vera and Gloria on set. Vera asks for a subtle rewrite of the final scene, a change that will bring Vera’s own journey into the frame. She cements her legacy in this moment–but we still can’t tell for sure what Vera is thinking. Of that legacy? Of getting more lines? Or maybe, it’s just a good note.