10/27/2013      BY THE WAY, MEET VERA STARK                     Alliance Theatre

STEREOTYPES


Every now and then, a script (or production) comes along that almost torpedoes itself with a single "lazy" choice.  In Lynn Nottage's By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, we get a well-wrought comedic look at the stereotypes of a previous era that engages us with sharp and witty characters and dialogue, and drives us into an intermission that is almost unwelcome.  Then Act II comes along, shifts us into a different era, and, in the guise of "satirizing a certain kind of writer," indulges in its own stereotypes, giving us some over-the-top caricatures that would drive the whole production over the shark tank if it weren't for a final coda that delivers a powerful punch, redeeming the whole thing.

 

It is the 1930's, and spoiled actress Gloria Mitchell is practicing to screen test for "The Belle of New Orleans," a cheesy antebellum melodrama that seems to be drawing the attention of "Every actress in Hollywood."  Her maid, Vera Stark, is helping her, harboring acting ambitions of her own.  We also meet a number of Vera's friends, all of who are bristling under the inability of African Americans to win anything but "yassuh" Maid or servant roles in any film.

 

But it's a start -- better playing a maid than being a maid.

 

And, to make a long story short, both Gloria and Vera are cast, and "The Belle of New Orleans" becomes the defining moment in both their careers.

 

In Act Two, time has inexorably marched onward, and it's 2003.  A Los Angeles "Film Society" is doing a retrospective on Vera Stark's life and career.  Two feminist writers have their pet theories on "what brought Vera down," and snipe at each other with their conjectures, while the host screens a 1970's talk show that provides a final encounter between Vera and Gloria, both aging divas trying to maintain a hold on relevance and dignity.

 

I absolutely loved the theatrical flourishes of the second act, the combination of eras, the bit-by-bit mosaic we see of Vera's life after "Belle of New Orleans."  I loved the performances of Toni Trucks and Courtney Patterson as Vera and Gloria, their interactions perfectly capturing the complex nature of their relationship.  Letting them ham it up as the aging diva proved to be a masterstroke of comic bickering, and their final almost-lyrical "off screen" revelation is a beautiful grace note for their story, the legacy the pretentious scholars of Act Two cannot possibly ever learn.

 

Now, about those "scholars."  They are both painted as over-the-top extremists, more interested in "proving" their own pet theories than doing any real research.  While this sort of commentary is become increasingly popular, I see it as a symptom of the "dumbing down" of the everyone-except-me-and-my-friends America, and should welcome the theatrical skewering  on display here.

 

What it left me with, though, is an uncomfortable context of "this is what ALL 'feminist writers' are like."  We see no one in contrast, no one taking them to task for their sloppy research and their it's-really-all-about-me presentation style.  Since Ms. Nottage is herself a "feminist writer," this is a particularly hard pill to swallow.

 

 I'm willing to give Ms. Nottage the benefit of the doubt here.  I can't help but wonder if the over-the-top nature of these characters came from the actors and the director rather than the script itself.  They were blocked in a ludicrous manner than made no logical sense OTHER than to show them as objects of ridicule.

 

In any case, it seemed to me an example of using caricatures in a production about the breaking down of caricatures, and it was, to be kind, an uncomfortable fit.

 

All this being said, I have to give credit to the supporting cast of Andrew Benator, Nikiya Mathis, Genesis Oliver, Tiffany Rachelle Stewart, and Daniel Triandiflou who are called upon to play multiple characters.  Other than the two "scholars," all the characters were vivid and memorable, and provided perfect support for Ms. Trucks and Ms. Patterson.

 

And, when all is said and done, it is their story.  In the first half, they made us care about these two women, to be curious about their history, to wonder what they became.  The reason Act Two works, even with its flaws, is because we care what happened to them.  Maybe my adverse reaction to the "scholars" is based on them caring more about using Vera Stark to prop up their agendas, and, by that point, it was apparent to everyone watching that Ms. Stark deserves better.

 

In the final analysis, I was very happy to "meet Vera Stark."  Her story paints a compelling portrait of the world of classic Hollywood, both the appeal and the cost.  Her subsequent history is an even more compelling picture of the price she (and other African-American actors of the time) had to pay getting us to our current better-but-still-a-long-way-to-go situation today.

 

It is, after all, ironic that Toni Trucks, who gives us such a compelling portrait of Vera Stark, could only last two episodes in the "best-but-doomed friend" role in the new series "Hostages."

 

Well, better to play the doomed best friend than to be the doomed best friend.

 

    --   Brad Rudy   (BKRudy@aol.com)