Vera Stark (Jessica Frances Duke), a vaudeville alumna and now maid for “America’s little sweetie pie,” Gloria Mitchell (Jenni Barber), is desperate to elbow her way into the movies in pre-Hays Hollywood. She asks Mitchell to recommend her to her director, but the squeaky-voiced diva is consumed by her own casting woes. When the script for a southern epic, The Belle of New Orleans, begins making the rounds, Vera takes note: “A Southern epic! Magnolias and petticoats. You know what else it means, cotton and slaves–.” “Slaves?” interrupts her friend (Heather Alicia Simms), perking up. “With lines?” After intermission, the action shifts to 2003, and a panel of filmmakers, academics, and activists discuss Stark’s legacy and watch a long-lost television interview with her from the ‘seventies. Despite a forty-year career, it is The Belle of New Orleans for which she remains most famous. The creakily-written slave woman Tilly haunts Vera for the rest of her career.
Lynn Nottage’s By the Way, Meet Vera Stark begins as a funny and pertinent critique of white Hollywood and its persistent boxing-in of Black actors. This manifests itself most enjoyably in the form of the European auteur Maximillian von Oster (Manoel Felciano), who spends most of his time onstage rambling about how he wants to cast “Negroes of the earth,” how he wants to feel “the rhythm of their language” and see “hundreds of years of oppression in the hunch of their shoulders.” Serving drinks, Vera quickly obliges, snapping her back forward and breaking out the chiles and suhs. But The Belle of New Orleans becomes both a boon to Vera’s career and a lifelong branding, one that reduces her considerable talents to the shucking and jiving of a desperate, first-time screen actor. But the questions raised by the panel remain relevant; they are not a relic of Hollywood’s Golden Years. How do we appreciate in the present someone like Hattie McDaniel or Louise Beavers, wonderful performers stuck in degrading roles? Can we enjoy movies like Gone with the Wind or Imitation of Life, conscious of the relentless racism but appreciative of the work of their Black artists? Even now, how should we judge performers who continue to be relegated to slaves and maids, roles meant to support or accentuate white stars? And how should Black actors, especially those who are early in their career and thus most vulnerable, respond to such parts?
Unfortunately, Nottage muddles her purpose with some bizarre tonal choices. The panel is made up of clichés, not characters, from the pretentious and sexist filmmaker (Warner Miller) to the Afroed race woman (Carra Patterson) who addresses the academic to her left as “my sister.” These jokes are not only easy, but they distract from the seriousness of the questions; while it makes sense for Nottage to depict von Oster or even Mitchell with comic contempt, it makes none for her to demonstrate similar feelings for these earnest if over-eager critics. Duke, in the role of Stark, is absolutely brilliant, especially in the later scenes when she embodies the older version of the actress, slow but still dignified, a slight waver in her theatrical boom betraying the wear and tear of the intervening years. Ultimately, however, both Duke and Vera deserves a better play, one that remains committed to the pathos of her story.