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Jessica Frances Dukes & Jenni Barber in By the Way, Meet Vera Stark

Review of Signature Theatre's By the Way, Meet Vera Stark by Lynn Nottage

Tulis McCall
Tulis McCall

Lynn Nottage is a brave writer. She sees an idea that needs examining and she goes in with everything from a pick axe to a laser. Nothing is out of bounds and everything is safe. That is because Nottage believes in shining lights into dark places - and everything could use a little light. In By The Way, Meet Vera Stark, now at Pershing Square Signature Center, she is revisiting a tale previously produced by Second Stage Theater in 2011.

The story begins in 1933 and follows a black actor, Vera Stark (Jessica Frances Dukes), who lands a role in a movie, The Belle Of New Orleans, in which she plays a servant to her real life boss Gloria Mitchell (Jenni Barber). In the movie Vera gets not only the last say, but the last line - something unheard of in Hollywood. Gloria is so self involved that she cannot see her way without Vera at her side. Vera knows what is needed - and it is more than the pouting and prancing at which Gloria excels. Vera coaxes and wheedles Gloria through a rehearsal for an - egads! - audition. It turns out that these two may have more in common, as in a father, than the public realizes.

The first act is fast and often slick, with most of the characters being caricatures. The breath of freshness lies with Gloria, which is odd as this is a play devoted to the story of a black woman. But Gloria is the center of the universe and so self-referential that everyone else ends up in her shadow. There is the addition of Vera's roommates Lottie (Heather Alicia Simms), another out of work actor and Anna Mae (Carra Patterson), a light-skinned woman who is passing for Argentinian and dating every studio heavyweight she can find. The male side of this equation is in the form of Leroy (Warner Miller) who is Man-Friday to the movie's director, Maximillian Von Oster (Manoel Felilciano) and its producer Mr. Slasvick (David Turner). But the spotlight stays firmly on Gloria.

The Second Act reveals the final scene of the infamous movie and moves quickly to a seminar where Ms. Starks' career and importance are dissected in 2003 style by Professor Carmen Levy-Green (Simms) and writer Afua Assata Ejobo (Patterson) and is moderated by Herb Forrester (Miller). These three debate and grandstand social and racial theories as they watch a 1973 interview with Ms. Stark by Brad Donovan (Turner) with guest Peter Rhys-Davies (Feliciano). The three watch while Stark roams through her past and pulls out memories, triumphs and regrets that the two white men have a teeny bit of trouble digesting. Vera is in command. Until, unfortunately, Gloria shows up. But this time they battle for the spotlight like two old soldiers.

This is a well intentioned play that never lands in one spot. We hear about Vera's struggles in a way that is more a litany than a gut punch. She was a ground breaker who had to settle for parts of a maid or a slave. Others took a limo to work. Vera took the bus. In the end she was left with nothing. But we never get into the heart of this woman. Ms. Nottage is taking wide swaths through this territory and covers a lot of ground. But in the end it feels more like a hop-on hop-off bus tour. We see it but we don't feel it. Everyone is a caricature and the beating hearts that keep them alive never surface.

(Photo by Joan Marcus)

"By the time the lights go up on Lynn Nottage's 2011 satire, By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, revived by the Signature Theater Company, you'll have spent nearly two and a half hours watching Vera. Or watching other characters watch her. You may not know her at all. In this barbed and booby-trapped comedy, that might be the point. This is a play, often a very funny one, about representation and erasure."
Alexis Soloski for New York Times

"Although the Signature production often misses its step, it's a welcome reminder that Nottage has a tricky pinball brain, capable of whanging through the decades and lighting us up with humor and rage."
Helen Shaw for Time Out New York

"After writing two harrowing Pulitzer Prize-winning plays, Sweat and Ruined, Lynn Nottage is entitled to have a little fun. But while this revival of her new play, By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, walks and talks like a screwball comedy, it has a real brain in its head."
Marilyn Stasio for Variety

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