By Tulis McCall
Lynn Nottage is a brave writer. She sees an idea that needs examining and she goes in with everything from a pick axe to a laser. Nothing is out of bounds and everything is safe. That is because Nottage believes in shining lights into dark places – and everything could use a little light. In By The Way, Meet Vera Stark now at The Pershing Square Signature Center she is revisiting a tale previously produced by Second Stage in 2011.
The story begins in 1933 and follows a black actor, Vera Stark (Jessica Frances Dukes), who lands a role in a movie, The Belle Of New Orleans, in which she plays a servant to her real life boss Gloria Mitchell (Jenni Barber). In the movie Vera gets not only the last say, but the last line – something unheard of in Hollywood. Gloria is so self involved that she cannot see her way without Vera at her side. Vera knows what is needed – and it is more than the pouting and prancing at which Gloria excels. Vera coaxes and wheedles Gloria through a rehearsal for an – egads! – audition. It turns out that these two may have more in common, as in a father, than the public realizes.
The first act is fast and often slick, with most of the characters being caricatures. The breath of freshness lies with Gloria, which is odd as this is a play devoted to the story of a black woman. But Gloria is the center of the universe and so self-referential that everyone else ends up in her shadow. There is the addition of Vera’s roommates Lottie (Heather Alicia Simms), another out of work actor and Anna Mae (Carra Patterson), a light-skinned woman who is passing for Argentinian and dating every studio heavyweight she can find. The male side of this equation is in the form of Leroy (Warner Miller) who is Man-Friday to the movie’s director, Maximillian Von Oster (Manoel Felilciano) and its producer Mr. Slasvick (David Turner). But the spotlight stays firmly on Gloria.
The Second Act reveals the final scene of the infamous move and moves quickly to a seminar where Ms. Starks’ career and importance are dissected in 2003 style by Professor Carmen Levy-Green (Simms), write Afua Assata Ejobo (Patterson) and is moderated by Herb Forrester (Miller). These three debate and grandstand social and racial theories as they watch a 1973 interview with Ms. Stark by Brad Donovan (Turner) with guest Peter Rhys-Davies (Feliciano). The three watch Stark roams through her past and pulls out memories, triumphs and regrets that the two white men have a teeny bit of trouble digesting. Vera is in command. Until, unfortunately, Gloria shows up. But this time they battle for the spotlight like two old soldiers.
This is a well intentioned play that never lands in one spot. We hear about Vera’s struggles in a way that is more a litany than a gut punch. She was a ground breaker who had to settle for parts of a maid or a slave. Others took a limo to work. Vera took the bus. In the end she was left with nothing. But we never get into the heart of this woman. Ms. Nottage is taking wide swaths through this territory and covers a lot of ground. But in the end it feels more like a hop-on hop-off bus tour. We see it but we don’t feel it. Everyone is a caricature and the beating hearts that keep them alive never surface.
By The Way, Meet Vera Stark – by Lynn Nottage and directed by Kamilah Forbes
WITH: Jenni Barber as Gloria, Jessica Frances Dukes Vera, Manoel Felciano as Max/Peter, Warner Miller as Leroy/Herb, Carra Patterson as Anna Mae/Afua, Heather Alicia Simms as Lottie/Carmen and David Turner as Brad/Slavick.
Clint Ramos (Scenic Design), Dede M. Ayite (Costume Design), Matt Frey (Lighting Design), Mikaal Sulaiman (Sound Design), Katherine Freer (Projection Design) and Daniel Kluger (Composition)
Through Sunday, March 10, 2019 with a Tuesday, February 19 opening night on The Irene Diamond Stage at The Pershing Square Signature Center (480 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues). All tickets for the initial run of the production are $35 as part of the Signature Ticket Initiative: A Generation of Access. To purchase tickets for all Signature productions, call Ticket Services at 212-244-7529 (Tues. – Sun., 11am – 6pm) or visit www.SignatureTheatre.org.