The silver screen hasn’t always been friendly to African-American actresses, and that history is explored in Lynn Nottage’s By The Way, Meet Vera Stark. The Alliance Theatre production showcases the talents of the cast and crew, creating a solid production that rises above the flaws of the work itself.
As Vera Stark, Toni Trucks excels – as do Tiffany Rachelle Stewart (Anna Mae) and Nikiya Mathis (Lottie), playing her roommates. In the role as Gloria Mitchell, Courtney Patterson provides the perfect equal to Trucks. Their scenes together are mesmerizing, and the subtleties the two ladies bring to their performances make watching the show even more enjoyable.
Everything begins in 1930s Hollywood where Vera Stark is longing to become a starlet, but as an African-American woman the only roles open to her are playing domestics or slaves. When a great southern epic is in the works, she knows that she could bring something special to the role and works to get the opportunity to snag it.
Nottage has crafted a fast-paced and witty first act. Using both quips and physical comedy at times, Leah C. Gardiner directs the talents of the cast to display the text’s humor wonderfully. The humorous situations all come to a crescendo in a finely staged scene where all three ladies meet in each of their personas as they entertain and audition with the director and head of the studio.
The second act brings the audience to 2003 during a film festival where a panel talks about a 1973 interview with Vera in addition to her film career. An odd departure, the act doesn’t provide much closure to the events of the first act nor does it really show any growth in the characters.
While the first act is quick moving, hilarious and interesting, the second act loses that momentum. It seems to attempt to juxtapose modern day stereotypes against the stereotypes depicted in classic Hollywood by presenting a lesbian poet and a college professor, complete to the costumes and hairstyles. This approach, however, doesn’t work. While it isn’t clear whether this is a fault of the written text or this production, the caricatures are over the top and unappealing.
The character of Vera, a composite of several actresses, seems to be a Hattie McDaniel type figure in first act (which works), and a Judy Garland parody in the second act (which detracts), resulting in an almost unbelievable performance.
Despite the drawbacks of the narrative, the talent both on the stage and off lift the production out of the mire of the second act. Led by Trucks, the cast engages the audience, and the set design by John Coyne and the costume design by Esosa capture the essence of the era. In addition, the projection design by Adam Larsen works well with the onstage presentation.
By the Way, Meet Vera Stark plays at the Alliance Theatre on the main stage through November 10, 2013. For tickets and more information, please visit our Now Onstage listing or the theater’s website. The show’s runtime is approximately, two and half hours with an intermission.
– A. Wesley