Monday, April 15, 2013

By the way, Vera Stark isn't a very good play

The talented women of By the Way, Meet Vera Stark. Photos: Johnathan Carr





I've long maintained that the celebrated Lynn Nottage is more pedagogue than playwright - and I think that after seeing By the Way, Meet Vera Stark (at the Lyric Stage through April 27), few could disagree. For this time the author is quite openly at the lecture podium, laser pointer in hand.  It's true she ribs her lesson plan a little (or rather the academics from whom she's cribbing), but this cannot disguise the fact that Vera Stark is full of familiar, self-indulgent conceits - and as a dramatic construction it's pretty rudimentary.  Still, you could argue that as PowerPoint, it sometimes sings.

What's too bad about Nottage's failure is that she's actually on to a resonant theme - the plight of generations of African-American actors and actresses locked into stereotypic roles on the silver screen (just as their brothers and sisters were locked into subservient roles in society at large).  And at first the author seems to be exploring an intriguing angle on this embedded racism; we meet her heroine, the "forgotten" Vera Stark, while she's running lines for a fictitious Jezebel mash-up called The Belle of New Orleans with her employer, the (likewise fictitious) Hollywood actress Gloria Mitchell.

Gloria, of course, is playing the southern belle; Vera's her sassy maid.  When the line readings end, however, we realize Vera is actually Gloria's maid, in real life; indeed, they're a team - Gloria's got the looks, Vera's got the brains.  Or rather the mixed-race Gloria has the white looks, while Vera has the talent; they're related (cousins, perhaps?), and started out in show business as a single vaudeville act.  But Gloria's "high yaller" skin tone allowed her to slip under the color bar  - so now she is essentially auditioning for the role of Scarlett O'Hara, with her darker, more capable cousin tagging along, hoping to play the maid!  Or actually hoping to play anything - as one of Vera's buddies puts it when she hears of the impending screen tests, "Are there any slaves?  With lines?"


The real Vera Stark? An uncredited Theresa Harris sings "St. Louis Blues" to Barbara Stanwyck in the 1936 Banjo on My Knee.

Again - this is a solid set-up, and it's hardly far-fetched; Hollywood star Merle Oberon, for instance, passed off her Indian mother as her maid for years.  Nottage herself has acknowledged the great actress Theresa Harris, who played Bette Davis' maid in Jezebel, as the inspiration for Vera (although a different, more complicated parallel could be found in the career of Fredi Washington, who in 1934's Imitation of Life played a mixed-race woman "passing" for white). Indeed, Nottage's concept is so rich that for a while she can coast on it, with witty cameos of other black girls just a shade darker than Gloria working the "Lena Horne/Brazilian" angle, even as clueless Hollywood producers wax poetic about "authentic Negroes" (while all the African-Americans around them helplessly "audition" to play these racist caricatures).

As I said, this is all good satiric fun - but it's not actually drama, it's sketch comedy.  And, like the academic colloquy that concludes the play, it all feels recycled (indeed SNL and "In Living Color" covered all this territory decades ago). The real drama here would lie in Vera and Gloria's relationship; but Nottage's sense of sisterly solidarity prevents her from digging into this with anything deeper than a few sarcastic jabs.  Rather obviously her first act should climax with Vera self-demeaningly keeping Gloria's secret under duress - in order to win a crack at the big time, in however low a role (with her internal conflict setting up the second act in turn).  But as usual for Ms. Nottage, nothing like a climax ever comes close to occurring in either act (indeed, as in Ruined and Intimate Apparel, this dramatist seems unconcerned with even the basics of dramatic development).


Bette Davis suffers in white before a crowd of racial stereotypes in Jezebel, the movie Vera Stark lampoons.

Still, the witty surface of Nottage's dialogue (and she is often funny) disguises for most people the structural problems lurking in her play. (Sigh; why does "development" always polish a play without actually improving it?)  It's not until the second act, in which Vera's slow career collapse - and eventual disappearance - is documented with free-floating postmodern tropes (films within films within television shows, and an academic discussion group deconstructing it all) that things fall apart, because there's no through-line, no actual dramatic connection with Vera.  Nottage tries to cover her tracks here by having her talking (egg)heads insist the key to Vera's crack-up lies in "what was unspoken" - but again, as Nottage never actually dramatizes this struggle to remain silent, these lines read more as excuse than explication.

I will say, however, in Nottage's defense, that under Summer L. Williams' direction, Vera is hardly given its due at the Lyric.  Full disclosure here - Williams, a leading force at Company One, has long campaigned against me and my blog, and been vociferous in claiming that I'm racist. I disagree, needless to say, but if what I've written so far - or what I'm about to write - disturbs you in so far as it reflects a white male critic assessing black female artists, by all means, tell yourself (as Ms. Williams does) that I'm racist, and you'll feel more comfortable about everything.  Frankly, by now I almost don't mind that particular slur, I've written part of the theatrical community off in this regard, and they've done the same to me. So we kind of co-exist on parallel planes - I continue to pursue dramatic criticism, they continue to claim that's racist when it comes to them.

Still keeping secrets in the 70's.


With that said, let's move on to Williams' direction - which is not all it could, or should, be.  To her credit, Williams has brought a number of exciting new faces to the Lyric - I hope to see the wonderfully knowing Lindsay Allyn Cox, the brashly sweet Terrell Donnell Sledge, the smartly exotic Kris Sidberry, and the hilariously gonzo Gregory Balla on this stage again sometime soon.  But at the same time, Williams has miscast (and misdirected) Lyric mainstay Kelby T. Akin, and more importantly, under-directed star Kami Rushell Smith (Vera) and Hannah Husband (Gloria).  

Husband paints in broad strokes throughout, suggesting little sense of private conspiracy with Vera; but it's Smith who's most at sea.  Her beaming intelligence (and lovely voice) serve her well in the first act, but she flails in the second, which attempts to limn her metastasizing bitterness as her career crashes into further racial roadblocks (while Gloria, indemnified by now as whiter than white, soars into the arms of some British cultural scion).  Here costume designer Tyler Kinney must shoulder some blame (David Towlun does much better by the set, and Johnathan Carr's screen simulations of Jezebel are witty); my inner drag queen tells me that poor Vera should look like a train-wreck by the time she appears at the end of her career on a Merv-Griffin-like talk show (soon she will strip naked on a Vegas stage before vanishing for good).  But neither Vera's outfit, nor her outlook, suggests she's inches from the precipice (or that Gloria's final betrayal will push her over it).  Smith simply hasn't found within herself the conflicts that, yes, go unspoken, but should still be informing her performance every minute. The bottom line is that there's brilliant work on the edges of By the Way, Meet Vera Stark - so it's really too bad its center doesn't hold.

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