Ms. Nottage’s won her Pulitzer for “Ruined”; her play “Intimate Apparel” ran at the Alliance some time ago.
“Vera Stark” deals with the stereotyping of African-American actors in the 1930’s and takes us almost to the present day. It begins in 1933 with a conversation between two black actresses who are fully aware of the racism present in the film industry but who nevertheless want work. One of them, a former maid turned actress named Vera Stark (Toni Trucks), hears of a film involving slaves. She has one question: “Slaves with lines?”
Lines mean money; but more than that, a chance for an intelligent actress to inject unexpected perception (what film scholars sometimes call “subversive readings”) into a part — as well as a bid for screen immortality. Vera knows all that very well; Ms. Trucks, by the way, is excellent.
Vera and her roommates Lottie (Nikiya Mathis) and Anna Mae (Tiffany Rachelle Stewart) use every inch and ounce of their strength and ingenuity to make a mark in an industry dominated by “America’s Little Sweetie Pie,” Gloria Mitchell (Courtney Patterson), and other white actresses. They must all work for pretentious studio heads like Mr. Slasvick (Andrew Benator) and pompous directors like Maximillian Von Oster (Daniel Triandiflou).
Even though the play at times resembles a biopic documentary, please don’t think the piece humorless — quite the contrary. Playwright Nottage’s dialogue is often very funny; one of the delights here is that the characters, despite their plight, often don’t take themselves too seriously. “You’re playing a dying virgin!” remarks one. It’s this light touch that rescues “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark” from a lack of dramatic tension. Too often the scenes are a bit long and one hopes for a sparkling resolution which never comes.
But the actors — all of them — are experienced professionals and they work near miracles. I haven’t mentioned Genesis Oliver, who plays Leroy Barksdale and Herb Forrester.
The action switches to an actual film called “The Belle of New Orleans” with an extended scene with Ms. Patterson playing a dying belle who tries to hide her “shame” at being an octoroon while a very knowing Vera (Ms. Trucks) offers comfort and wisdom.
In this scene, especially, there are echoes of “Gone With the Wind” when Mammy is lacing up Scarlett for the barbecue. You get the feeling that perhaps Ms. Nottage wants to chastise Hattie McDaniel for playing Mammy as a stereotype. Yet she doesn’t; possibly because Ms. McDaniel won an Oscar (the first African-American to do so), and possibly because the actress revealed depths of tenderness, subtlety, and dignity that went far beyond the part as written: the very thing that Vera Stark wants to do.
“Vera Stark” is interesting, but one yearns for an epiphany that never comes. Perhaps the director, Leah C. Gardiner, could have pepped things up a bit, but it’s obvious that Ms. Nottage didn’t win her Pulitzer for this play.
For tickets and information, visit alliancetheatre.org.