Review: ‘By the Way, Meet Vera Stark’ by Lynn Nottage: Regional Premiere at Douglas Morrisson Theatre (***)

 

by Barry David Horwitz
Rating: ***
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

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This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

Meeting Vera Stark is like meeting the beautiful Douglas Morrisson Theater in Hayward. It’s a delightful and elegant surprise. When you enter the low-slung modernist wood-paneled, spacious, warm building, you feel transported back to a leisurely time—the 1978 modern Japanese design looks like the 30s, with lovely use of wood and wide easy aisles, soft rugs, muted rose and brown colors—one of the sweetest small open stages around, set in a green park. Why haven’t I known about this lovely theater, before? Why haven’t we thought about Vera Stark, the Black lady’s-maid in 30s movies, before? Vera is a sleek, stylish, and smart fictional creation, played by the superb Kelly Strickland, in this satire on Hollywood, then and now.

As you walk in, the stage is open to view, and from the raked angle above you see the beautiful set — the 30s rugs with art deco circles taking us back to the early film days. “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark” (2011) by Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage takes us back (and forward) 70 years, to the making of a “Gone with the Wind” type movie — and the sharp dealings and stereotypes that went into such moviemaking.

The play opens with witty repartee between the narcissistic star Gloria Mitchell (Alicia von Kugelgen) and her ‘real-life’ maid, Vera Stark (Kelly Strickland), embodying the class differences in early Hollywood, and the rest of the U.S. Of course, Vera is hired to play the maid in the movie—playing second fiddle to Gloria, as usual—even though she is the one who makes Gloria learn her lines, keep a schedule, and behave herself on set. The Black maid, clearly more competent than her flamboyant “mistress,” carries her duties and her charade onto the screen. The pace of this production is bit too languid; the timing could be quicker and more challenging—because we have seen these stereotypes before. Even though it’s a complex play with three time periods, we could take a faster pace.

Vera Drake, clearly wiser and more flexible and more hard-working than her white employer, lives with two delightful roommates. One, Anna Mae Simpkins (a tall graceful Jia Taylor) pretends to be a “Brazilian” bombshell (a role much in vogue these days). And two, Vera’s more subdued and maternal roommate Lottie McBride (a worldly, witty Shani Harris-Bagwell) who wisely advises the other girls. Playwright Lynn Nottage shows us how Black women had to appeal to “accepted” stereotypes to be hired in the white film world. Although Vera Stark, the actor, accepts her role, she manages to bring heart and soul, feeling and intelligence to her film work as a cinema maid.

Although things move rather slowly in the stylized 30s atmosphere of Act One, they pick up some speed and pizzazz in Act Two, where we are whisked to a present-day live panel discussion, C-Span style. In the present day panel, characters from the past are re-cycled into new types. The faux Brazilian bombshell has become Afua Assata Ejobo (played distinctively by Jia Taylor), a militant lesbian feminist. While wise roommate Lottie McBride has turned into Carmen Levy-Green (the distinguished Shani Harris-Bagwell), a modern academic who tries to explain the reasons behind Vera’s choices. The harried TV host is played with verve by Khary Moye as an energetic intellectual host trying to keep the two critics apart. They are debating the legacy of the re-discovered Vera Stark. The double casting makes Nottage’s points about the re-cycling of stereotypes rather fun and bittersweet.

 If that isn’t enough, we get flash-backs to a 1973 TV Panel show, a la Dick Cavett, with the trendy moderator humorously played by Evan Sokol—trying to make trouble between his guests, the rediscovered Vera and her long-lost “friend” Gloria. Vera, now older and a bit wobbly, in a psychedelic swirling green dress, has become a lot more assertive. She confronts her old nemesis and the two get down and dirty—revealing old enmities and old accommodations. There’s a Mick Jagger type rock star as guest and audience, a spacey Peter Rhys-Davies (Gene Mocsy)—playing a modern version of his first act character. Get it? Nottage uses everybody twice and makes the old seem new—a message for our time. Even the classic modern D.M. Theater fits the scenario.

Everyone is thrust into new roles, as we bounce forth and back between the Vera Stark panel in the present, and the TV interview of 1973, enacted live for us—plus lots of clips from Vera’s much-lauded role as the soulful maid in the 30s. The cast has a high old time with all these roles and reversals and revivals—and they make us think about the roles that traditional and underappreciated Black actors—like the fictional Vera—had to play. So many under-appreciated and talented stars over the years come to mind, as the Director Dawn Monique William points out in her notes: “Lena Horne, Ethel Waters, Pearl Bailey, Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Josephine Baker, Moms Mabley, Butterfly McQueen, the legendary Hattie McDaniel…”

These are women for whom the fictional Vera Stark stands, rather wittily. As Director Williams points out: “They loved, and laughed, danced and entertained, they sung, they shouted, ‘I am here,’ and paved a way for generations of Black girls with stars in their eyes.” Nottage’s play makes us all think about our identities, our choices, the roles that we play—and others are forced to play. The play makes us think about how we play together. We think about the contributions of African-American women who have gone unremarked until we rediscover them—as Zora Neal Hurston was “re-discovered” by Alice Walker, and so many yet to be celebrated. The play makes some obvious points but we need to be reminded, with humor and emphasis, what is going on around us, right now. Those Art Deco circles tell us that the past remains in the present.

   The Douglas Morrisson Theatre deserves support and commendation for taking on this challenging play in its regional premiere. Although the pace could be quicker and sharper, the DMT has taken a bold step with such challenging and up-to-date work.

“By the Way, Meet Vera Stark” by Lynn Nottage, Regional Premiere, Douglas Morrisson Theatre, Hayward, CA, plays through Sept. 20, 2015. Click here for further information.

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“By tye Way, Meet Vera Stark” by Lynn Nottage, regional premiere produced by the Douglas Morrisson Theatre. Director: Dawn Monique Williams. Scenic Design: Andrea Bechert. Costume Design: Courtney Flores. Video: VideoProSF. Lighting Design: MikeOesch. Sound Design: Cliff Carruthers. Assistant Director: Roberta Inscho-Cox. Stage Management: Cheryle Honerlah.

Cast:

Vera Stark: Kelly Strickland. Gloria Mitchell: Alicia von Kugelgen. Leroy Barksdale/Herb Forrester: Khary Moye. Lottie McBride/Carmen Levy-Green: Shani Harris-Bagwell. Anna Mae Simpkins/Afua Assata Ejobo: Jia Taylor. Mr. Slasvick/Brad Donovan: Evan Sokol. Maxmillian von Oster/Peter Rhys-Davies: Gene Mocsy.

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