Who were the African American actors who played the roles of mammies and shuffling servants in Hollywood films of the thirties and forties? What were their attitudes toward the stereotyped roles they played, and what kind of agency or resistance could they assert within a production system that afforded very limited opportunities to non-white performers? These are the historical questions that undergird Lynn Nottage’s intriguing (but unfortunately not wholly successful) By the way, meet Vera Stark, a play about a “Negro” Hollywood actress coping with the endemic racism and myopia of both the film industry and the US film audience in the mid- to late twentieth century.
The play is set in three time periods, 1933, 1973, and 2003, allowing for a historical-anthropological perspective on the history of racism and stereotyping in both the film industry and popular culture at large. The first half, set in 1933, introduces us to Vera Stark (Maria Becoates-Bey) and her ambitions to break into Hollywood film. Her day job is as a housemaid to the film star Gloria Mitchell (Kelly Trumbull), “America’s Sweetie-Pie,” although it is clear from the very beginning that they have a friendship that long predates their present economic arrangement (they grew up together in Brooklyn, and in addition to tidying the house Vera also helps Gloria rehearse for her upcoming screen test and offers sartorial advice). Gloria is auditioning for the leading role in a new film about the antebellum south, and Vera has her eye on the part of Tilly, the slave maid. It’s the kind of demeaning role she has sworn she would never play, but after several futile years trying to get her foot in the door in the film industry, she sees this as her best chance at approximating the stardom that Gloria – who personifies blonde innocence on screen, if not in real life – has achieved with seemingly little effort. The first act fleshes out the challenges facing African-American performers along with some of the solutions they employ to overcome those challenges, in the characters of Vera’s roommate Lottie (Bria Walker), who has gained weight in order to be more easily cast as a “mammy”; her other roommate Anna Mae (Corinne Scott), whose light skin allows her to pass as Brazilian; and Leroy Barksdale (Tru Verret-Fleming), a musician who argues that black performers should produce their own art rather than put themselves at the mercy of the Hollywood studios. Rounding out the conflict are the film’s director, the voluble Russian Maxmillian von Oster (played with verve by Andy Kirtland) and the studio producer, Fredrick Slasvick (Jeff Howell), who balks at the director’s plans to make the film an “authentic” story about a brothel in the south because depictions of prostitution and intimacy between the races both violate the Hays Code.
The second act leaps forward to 2003; the film in question, The Belle of New Orleans, is now a beloved classic that not only cemented Gloria’s status as a star in the Hollywood firmament but also launched Vera’s (more erratic) film career. The scene is a panel of academics trying to answer the question of “What happened to Vera Stark?”; three film historians (played by Scott, Walker, and Verret-Fleming) bring different perspectives to bear on that question, using as primary evidence footage from the last interview Vera gave in 1973 on a TV talk show. We see that interview live, and much fun is had on the part of both costume designer Don DiFonso and actors Jeff Howell (playing Brad Donovan, the fey talk show host) and Andy Kirtland (playing a Mick Jagger-like British rock star) sending up the fashions and affectations of the seventies. Between the evidence provided by the thirty-year old interview and the jargony analysis offered by the modern scholars it becomes clear that what Vera Stark did, and what she represented, is open to vastly different interpretations, depending on the needs and identity of interpreter: where, for example, the film scholars see her as offering a kind of Brechtian critique in her playing of the slave maid, Vera herself sees the role as one that has not only delimited and defined her as an actress but also continues to foreclose real conversation about racism in the film industry (and about the rest of her own, more politically progressive, career).
My description of the play here is too serious to do justice to the play’s own approach to its subject, which is deliberately lighthearted and comic. Problematically, however, much of its comedy derives from caricature. This works better in the first half, where the caricatured depiction of Hollywood “types” (the boozy lead actress, the greedy producer, the demanding auteur foreign director, the golddigging starlet, the ambitious musician, etc) prompts reflection on the power of stereotype to shape social interactions and sheds light on how and why black actors rationalized playing stereotyped characters (like the “mammy”) in film. We see Vera, Lottie, and Anna Mae quite self-consciously don and doff a variety of roles in response to the white characters’ expectations. If this is black experience in the everyday world, the play seems to suggest, then perhaps playing to racist expectations in film represented something of a “real” representation of black experience. That said, the production struggles with the shifts in tone that a self-conscious portrayal of stereotype and caricature requires, so that at times it stops feeling like the characters are playing caricatures and rather simply are caricatures, which is problematic in a play ostensibly about the dangers of stereotypes. The second half of the play succumbs even more deeply to the temptation of parody: the sendup of the seventies and the mockery of academic-ese and militant political correctness feel like a diversion to hide the lack of a real conflict, and the main question resolved (having to do with the “real” relationship between Gloria and Vera) is one that alert audience members would have already figured out in the first act. The serious story that should be of interest – the tragic fate of a talented actress thwarted by systemic racism in both society and the film industry – is overshadowed by a frivolous pissing contest among (hardly credible) Ph.D.s.
Director Tomé Cousin has assembled a talented ensemble of actors, and even though occasionally they struggle to find the right tone and register, in general they bring a lot of good comic energy and timing to the material. The fun is enhanced by Don DiFonso’s (sometimes over-the top) costumes, Britton Mauk’s scene design, which carves out a number of nudge-nudge-wink-wink era-appropriate locations in the small studio space, and the sound and lights (Steve Shapiro and Andrew David Ostrowski), which surehandedly zap us from 30s Hollywood to 70s TV-land. The live action is enhanced by an impressive video design by Jessi Sedon-Essad, which successfully mimics several different eras in film history and provides a vivid visual reminder of the campy, overblown stereotypes in which the classical Hollywood film industry trafficked.