Amid the excitement of critical acclaim for Black actors, it is sometimes necessary to recall how
“we” got to this point. The latest offering at Pittsburgh Playhouse, “By The Way, Meet Vera Stark” by Lynn Nottage. In this production, right on the heels of “award season,” Nottage pulls no punches as she jabs the movie studio system of the 1930s somewhat sordid relationship with black talent.
It is 1933 in Hollywood and starlets are hungry for any fallen crumb that could be a ticket to the big time. And aging child darlings making the transition to the talkies are particularly desperate. And aspiring Black actors are too chomping at the bit to mark, however; their aspirations are tempered by the reality of the depression and Jim Crow. So as the sepia thespians share their dreams, they also share brooms, housework, and wait on the whim of established stars, directors and producers.
Perception is key to Hollywood and there are those who believe the hype and do whatever it takes to maintain their status – or in the case of “America’s Sweetie Pie – Gloria Mitchell – the delusion/illusion of status. As the help, Vera Sharp is the stylist, runs the lines with Gloria to the extent that Vera knows the lines better than her employer. All the while she harbors delusional thoughts that Gloria would but a word for Vera about the supporting role of a devoted maid to Gloria’s southern belle (don’t forget WHERE you are!).
Later, Vera goes home to commiserate with her friend Lottie, another colored thespian on the rise a once-slender performer in Broadway revues who has eaten her way into Hollywood’s idea of a mammy, and Anna Mae who uses her fair-skinned advantage to pass as Latina.
Vera shares the news about the antebellum maid role in the upcoming production, in the bit about slaves with speaking part; “Slaves? With lines?” says Lottie with incredulity. Their opportunity present itself when Gloria needs additional help for a grin and greet with studio bigwigs.
This leads to the most hilarious part of the play and it would be best served to simply say that all parties make the most of the situation. Unfortunately, the balance of the play doesn’t match the high octane presented in the first half.
This ensemble piece feature a range of talent, some of whom do dual roles. Supporting players include Jeff Howell as a studio exec and schwarmy talk-show host; Andy Kirtland, at times too over the top as a director and talk-show guest; Corinne Scott as polar opposites: wanna starlet and militant, and Tru-Verret-Fleming as chauffeur driver cum musician and film scholar.
It’s the ladies that shine the brightest – Kelly Trumbull is consistent as Gloria Mitchell, the vain, egocentric actress we see at the height of her career and continuing as the forever known as “America’s Sweetie Pie.” Maria Becoates By, a veteran of Nottage’s scripts (“Intimate Apparel” at City Theatre)is spot on conveying the requisite support, disdain, sincerity and indignation that mark the different stages of thoroughly “storied” career. Bria Walker is a showstopper as Lottie, who goes above and BEYOND to spotlight her “mammification” to get her moment on the silver screen.
Presented in the Studio Theatre of Playhouse, the set and stage crew (in character!) bring an additional dash in switching scenes and striking the stage (literally) and the skill of video designer Jessi Sedon-Essad is worthy of mention for the “lost” footage of Vera’s greatest work, “Belle of New Orleans.”
Director Tome Cousin likely used restraint in not allowing “By the Way, Vera Stark” to turn into a satire of spoof like Spike Lee’s “Bamboozled” or Robert Townsend’s “Hollywood Shuffle” films.
“By the Way, Vera Stark” is a satire to be sure and it would be easy to believe that Vera Stark is a real person – after all, there is a “Rediscovering Vera Stark” website (also satirical). And just as believable and more probable, is the conversations that should be fueled by the production.
Where: The Rep at the Point Park Playhouse, Craft Ave., Oakland.
When: Through April 6; 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays.
Tickets: $24-$27 (student discounts); 412-392-8000; www.pittsburghplayhouse.com.