(Photo: Vera Stark)
I've always been a fan of Sanaa Lathan for her beauty, her talent and her roles in urban classics (Love & Basketball, Brown Sugar). However, I never looked at the New York native as a powerhouse actress in the way of Oscar-winner Halle Berry or Oscar nominee Viola Davis. That said, audiences have never gotten a chance to experience Lathan's true acting chops in her mainstream films (Alien vs. Predator, The Family That Preys). After seeing Sanaa Lathan leave her comedic and dramatic guts on the stage in the off-Broadway play By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, I can report that moviegoers haven't even gotten a taste of what this woman can do with a character. Lathan in Meet Vera Stark teeters on Whoopi Goldberg, Meryl Streep–type theatrical brilliance.
Directed by Jo Bonney, Meet Vera Stark is an edgy, thought-provoking satire about struggling Black actresses in 1930s Hollywood. Rooming with three other Black actresses, Stark is insistent upon not playing a maid or a slave. But Stark is a maid in her real life, to a famous white actress, Gloria Mitchell (Stephanie J. Block). While assisting Mitchell with a screen test for an upcoming film named The Belle of New Orleans, about a "quadroon" passing for white, Stark discovers she desperately wants the role of the maid, which happens to have some rare depth. She, along with her roommates, is even willing to shuck 'n' jive for the role.
When the Russian director cries for “Negroes of the Earth” to play the downtrodden maid, he quizzes Stark, "What's your tragic story?" Seeing a chance at her big break, Stark says with shoulders hunched and the most hyper-annunciated Southern accent ever heard, “My mama died in childbirth cuz there wasn't no doctor there to birth me proper. And, you see, my pappy wuz a blues man, and he guitar was the onl-iest thing he luv." He then asks Vera to sing the blues, and she “sangs” with her roomies humming in the background. The moment is brilliant; your money is worth seeing this scene alone. Also, it's the story of many Black actors of old Hollywood, like Fredi Washington, Hattie McDaniel and Dorothy Dandridge (her career suffered for her refusal to play a maid or slave).
The first half of By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, which is written by Lynn Nottage, is one of the most witty, ferocious and intelligent onstage works I have seen in years. As a playwright, Nottage manages to take stereotypical characters and add some flesh to their meager bones. The writing is educational without being didactic, and humorous without relying on easy one-liners of African-American cultural references.
Furthermore, the exquisite cast, including Stephanie J. Block as the famous white actress and Karen Olivo as one of Vera's roomies, breathes perfect life into of the play. In the first half, there isn't an off moment, a misplaced laugh, or a point that doesn't resonate, especially with Lathan leading the way.
The second half, which fast-forwards to 1973 and 2003, stumbles. It's a storyline within a storyline, a drunken Vera on a 1973 talk show ranting about her decline in Hollywood and three panelists discussing the impact of Vera Stark’s legacy in 2003. Feeling like two different plays, the second half loses a bit of its wit. In addition, the investment you had in the original set of characters disappears due to only two of them making it to the second half. While this shift in storytelling doesn't completely ruin the play, it certainly falters; it has good intentions but it's too ambitious.
Overall, By the Way, Meet Vera Stark is an excellent production. Moreover, much of the cooning and shucking n' jiving that was a must for Black actors in 1930s Hollywood isn't too far from what actors do today, for both white and Black directors. Instead of maids and slaves, they are gangsters and "sistah gurls." By the Way, Meet Vera Stark is strikingly relevant in more ways than we know.
By the Way, Meet Vera Stark is currently running at the Second Stage Theatre in New York City.