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"By the Way, Meet Vera Stark" at Everyman Theatre

Maryland Morning theater critic J. Wynn Rousuck brings us her review of "By the Way, Meet Vera Stark" at Everyman Theatre. The production continues through May 11.   

The Rousuck Review: "By the Way, Meet Vera Stark" 

1930s Hollywood. 1970s TV talk shows. 21st century academic film studies. In her play, “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark,” Lynn Nottage uses these decade-hopping elements to examine the early, stereotyped roles of African-American actors. 

I’ve wanted to see a full production of this play ever since Center Stage presented a reading six seasons ago. Now, “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark” is at Everyman Theatre, receiving a beautifully staged area premiere, directed by Walter Dallas. The trappings are stunning and the performances are strong. 

But “Vera Stark” is a play divided against itself – half is set in the 1930s, the other half seven decades later. Act One is sprightly and clever. Act Two is hyper-satirical, but it spends too much time spelling out the consequences of what we’ve just seen.

Vera, the fictitious title character, is an African-American actress eager for a role in a major Hollywood motion picture in 1933. The role she’s aiming for? The best role available – a servant.

She’s had plenty of practice. Off screen, Vera supports herself by working as the maid to a Hollywood star. The fading star, Gloria Mitchell, is trying for the lead in the same picture – a “Gone with the Wind”-style epic called “The Belle of New Orleans.”

But for Vera, the screen role of a servant is her only inroad. Vera knows – and Everyman actress Dawn Ursula leaves no doubt – that she has the talent to make it a star turn.

When Vera’s boyfriend questions her tactics – and goals – Ursula’s Vera answers with as much flourish as any 1930s queen of the silver screen.

Director Dallas incorporates film clips, by cinematographer Thomas Kaufman. There’s plenty of humor, particularly when Gloria hires Vera and her roommate to serve at a party intended to win over the director and producer of “The Belle of New Orleans.”

Act Two takes place at an academic film colloquium called “Rediscovering Vera Stark.” It begins with a clip of the movie’s climactic ending. But the act’s centerpiece is Vera’s appearance on a 1973 TV talk show, which we see acted live on stage. The host (played by Wil Love as a hilarious combination of Phil Donahue and Mike Douglas) surprises Vera by reuniting her with Gloria, grandly portrayed by Beth Hylton.

The name Vera Stark means “stark truth.” And reminiscences soon turn to stark truths on the TV show. But these truths are misinterpreted by the cartoonish colloquium panelists. 

If Hollywood is a mirror of America and “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark” is an indictment of Hollywood, then it doesn’t take much to get the playwright’s point about the marginalization of black women.

In terms of the acting profession, it’s a theme that owes a debt to Alice Childress’ groundbreaking 1955 “Trouble in Mind.” In a broader sense, this theme runs through Nottage’s work, including her 2003 “Intimate Apparel” and even her 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning African drama, “Ruined.”

 “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark” is enjoyable and slickly staged at Everyman, but the play’s divided structure and comedy skit-like tone are ultimately more distancing than moving.

--J. Wynn Rousuck       

J. Wynn Rousuck has been reviewing theater for WYPR's Midday (and previously, Maryland Morning) since 2007. Prior to that, she was the theater critic of The Baltimore Sun, where she reviewed more than 3,000 plays over the course of 23 years.
Jamyla Krempel is WYPR's digital content director and the executive producer of Wavelength: Baltimore's Public Radio Journey. She collaborates with reporters, program and podcast hosts to create content for WYPR’s online platforms.