Vera Stark...How Far Have We Come?

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Ceate a new landscape for the future and refrain from unconsciously regurgitating the images that have confined African Americans since the inception of Hollywood.

[Theater]

By the Way, Meet Vera Stark by Lynn Nottage is a brilliantly crafted comedic and somewhat tragic story about Vera Stark, a passionate budding
actress living in Hollywood during the Depression Era.

She works as a maid for a lazy starlet, Gloria Mitchell, dubbed “America’s Sweetheart” while she herself can only limit her aspirations to landing a role as a slave or a maid on the big screen.

Played masterfully by Sanaa Lathan, Vera has just the right amount of passion, talent, and wit to draw you into her world and have you hoping she achieves her dreams. The title character’s struggle and narrative references in the play conjure up the legacies left by film actresses like Hattie McDaniel and Dorothy Dandridge, and films like “Imitation of Life,” and “Gone with the Wind.”

Also reminiscent of playwright Adrienne Kennedy’s “A Movie Star has to Star in Black and White,” Vera makes its unique examination of racial identity in Hollywood accessible to the audience through the smart humor of the writing, and the brilliant performances. Despite the setting of the play, Vera still remains poignant and relevant to the present day.

In act one, we are introduced to Vera’s roomates who are both aspiring actresses. The oldest of the three is a former show stopper who has been
in Hollywood for years and is now skeptical about achieving her dreams, and the other is light skinned and crafty enough to pretend to be of Latin descent and seduce the director of the picture.

All of these characters dream of being in the limelight except for Leroy Barksdale, Vera’s love interest in the play a jazz musician and horn player, played forcefully by Daniel Breaker who becomes the progressive voice in the first act. In response to Vera’s ambitions to land a slave role in the Southern slave epic “The Belle of New Orleans,” an upcoming picture in which her boss is starring, he points to the limited room for artistic transmutation in the world of film versus the world of music. He says something to the effect of: “I can start off in chains,” and begins to whole heartedly scat a jazz tune, “and then end up free.” Vera challenges his assertion, explaining that she has to work with what roles are available, rather than accept the painful reality of not being able to express her talent at all. We leave act one with Vera determined to see where this slave role can take her.

The second act of the play is set in the present at a symposium with three panelists who use clips of Vera’s performance in “The Belle of New Orleans,” and 1970’s video footage of one of her final television interviews as a reference point to discuss whether or not she was asserting herself
against the status quo or just another African American actress willing to play a maid.

While examining the different viewpoints of a professor/actress, a lesbian slam poet, and the quirky moderator a critic/scholar, the discourse remains comedic as well as insightful, and even pokes fun at Black scholarly discourse examining race in films. The excitement and almost desperation tinted with hope that Vera felt by the end of the first act, has turned into bitterness by act two.

As we hear the panelists discuss Vera and watch live footage of her interview, one of the most poignant things Vera says through her drunken diva stupor is that she wishes she could shake off that “slave girl” that she played all those years ago. Since then she has been in other
pictures, none to rave about, but nonetheless, she remained confined to the role that launched her career.

She is seen by fans and colleagues as the slave girl, and it’s clearly driven her mad. The Vera that we saw in act one full of talent, beauty, and determination was going to be a star somehow, but looking at the Vera who is now a washed up singer and bitter alcoholic in the second act the play forces us to examine a woman who won her dream and lost her soul in the process. One of the questions we may be left with at the end of the show is how one can have the dream, on their own terms.

So how does Vera translate to the present day? It forces us to look at the current films being made and the roles available to African Americans in the mainstream. It wasn’t too long ago that Spike Lee derided Tyler Perry’s films as “coonery” and “buffoonery.”

Sanaa Lathan, the star of Meet Vera, is a bonafide film goddess; yet, clearly she has not been churning out pictures year after year like her White counterparts. To add additional food for thought, in the audience the particular evening I attended the play was Producer/Director Lee Daniels, of “Precious” and “Monster’s Ball.”

Although the modern day “box” of what a Black actor must fit into may not be literally a slave role it is still necessary to thoroughly examine the
past so that we as consumers and producers of entertainment can continue to create a new landscape for the future and refrain from unconsciously regurgitating the images that have confined African Americans since the inception of Hollywood.

As audiences and performers alike must continuously examine what gets air time, and even why we choose to support the films that we do, By
The Way, Meet Vera Stark also drives home the age old sentiment that you must know where you came from before you can know where you are going.

"Speaking Truth To Empower."

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