by Carol Rocamora
“I’d rather make $800 playing a maid than $8 a week being one.”
Those were the fighting words of Hattie McDaniel, the first African American ever to win an Academy Award (for the role of “Mammy” in Gone with the Wind, 1939). And now, years later, playwright Lynn Nottage has heard those words, loud and clear – along with others from African-American actresses who could never (in the words of Theresa Harris) “rise above the role of the maid in Hollywood” in the 20th century.
The result? By The Way, Meet Vera Stark, Nottage’s razor-sharp satire about the struggle of black actresses in the movie industry, now being given a crackling revival at Signature Theaters. Vera Stark is Nottage’s own larger-than-life creation – a composite of McDaniel, Harris and others – who fell victim to stereotypical racial casting over the decades.
Stark’s story is cleverly told over a seventy-year span – from 1933 to 2003 – on Clint Ramos’s stylish turnstile set. We first meet Vera (Jessica Frances Dukes), maid to Gloria Mitchell (Jenni Barber), in Gloria’s lavish LA mansion. Gloria is a brash, blond Hollywood star, and Vera is helping her rehearse lines for Gloria’s upcoming film. Enter the producer and playwright, who are captivated by Vera’s so-called “authenticity” and consider casting her in the film as well. Vera and Lottie (Heather Alicia Simms), another maid in Gloria’s household, are positively hilarious as they “audition” before these impressionable guests, playing caricatures of downtrodden slaves – while a third aspiring African-American actress (who “passes” for white) poses as a glamorous Brazilian guest (Carra Patterson).
Part II – fast forward to 2003 and a TV Studio presenting a “What Happened to Vera Stark?” special. A panel of African-American female biographers discuss Vera Stark’s meteoric rise to stardom and subsequent fall, showing clips from The Belle of New Orleans, a film featuring Gloria, Vera, and Lottie (as mistress and maids, of course), as well as an interview with the stars. All play the stereotypes to the hilt, and the results are riotous.
Kamilah Forbes directs a terrific cast with gusto and verve. The beautiful Jessica Frances Dukes plays Vera’s age range with consummate skill, and Jenni Barber plays the flamboyant Gloria with panache. The actors play multiple roles with remarkable versatility – Warner Miller as a butler and then a talk show host, and David Turner as a producer and later a TV personality. Manoel Felciano is delightfully outrageous as a director and a talk-show guest. Special mention, also, to Katherine Freer’s terrific projection design.
Whatever topic Nottage chooses, she does so with commitment and conviction, as well as meticulous research. Whether it’s the plight of the American working class (Sweat), or the abuse of young women in Central Africa (Ruined), she writes with heart. With Vera Stark, as with Fabulation, or The Re-Education of Undine (another Nottage play in the Signature repertoire this season), she’s added humor to heart – and it’s a powerful, unbeatable combination.
Photos: Joan Marcus
By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, by Lynn Nottage, directed by Kamilah Forbes, at Pershing Square Signature Center through March 10.