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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
BY THE WAY, MEET VERA STARK
at Second Stage Theatre

LONG CRAWL TO THE TOP
By MATT WINDMAN

  Stephanie J. Block and Sanaa Lathan/ Ph: Joan Marcus

Considering the serious tone of earlier dramas by Lynn Nottage, such as Ruined (winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize) and Intimate Apparel (which should have won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize), it’s surprising to find that her newest play, By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, is a flat-out comedy. You might even call it a farce. Of course, it still manages to tackle an important topic in African American history along the way.  

The play uses a double-pronged structure to tackle the fascinating subject of black women who played poorly written servant and slave roles in early Hollywood films. It is not unlike Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George or Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia.

In Act One, set in 1933, Vera Stark (Sanaa Lathan) is introduced as the gorgeous maid of whiny and self-absorbed Hollywood scarlet Gloria Mitchell (Stephanie J. Block). Mitchell is currently on the verge of landing the lead role of The Belle of New Orleans, an epic film depicting the Old South.

Stark is hoping to be cast in the key supporting role of the heroine’s slave. Act one ends with Stark attempting to impress upon the film’s Russian director that she can convey a raw, authentic past by hilariously rewriting her past. Meanwhile, companions are breaking into a verse of “Let My People Go” and sporting a fake accent.

At the top of act two, which is set in the present day, a film historian is leading a discussion on Stark’s performance in The Belle of New Orleans. He and two other commentators watch a clip of a 1973 talk show in which Stark made her last public appearance before mysteriously disappearing.

A recurring debate is whether or not Stark degraded herself by playing menial and degrading roles. In her defense, Stark claims that she made the most of her opportunities and opened new doors for black performers. There are also subtle hints of a hidden lesbian relationship between Stark and Mitchell.

Jo Bonney’s excellent production is marked by sublimely ridiculous performances from an excellent ensemble including Block, Karen Olivo, Daniel Breaker and David Garrison. Lathan manages to portray Stark as a sexy and savvy individual with the confidence and knowhow to rise to the top of her profession. 

 


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