Ask any performer who has survived there and they will tell you that Hollywood is a notoriously tough town. This is particularly true for anyone who doesn’t quite fit the norm – including minorities.
Thus, with heart and humor, the Goodman Theatre’s current production of By the Way, Meet Vera Stark tells the story of an African American actress in the 1930s who will do almost anything to succeed in the world of film. The devastating emotional consequences, though, may far outweigh the dazzling heights of her success.
Working as a maid for one of cinema’s beloved darlings, Vera Stark discovers a script with a role that could catapult her to celluloid heights. Upon meeting the project’s director, she determines, with comic resolve, to win the part. But the fame the role brings her does not result in roles of equal quality. As her career dims, she finds her choices being questioned by a younger generation. Desperately proud, she must answer their contemplations of whether she has sold out her race by playing housekeepers and voodoo queens.
Playwright Lynn Nottage bases her lead character on several African American actresses that never got the acknowledgements that they deserved. Specifically, Stark seems like a combination of Dorothy Dandridge, who has nominated for an Oscar for 1954’s Carmen Jones, and Hattie McDaniel, who won one for Gone With the Wind in 1939. Tone-wise, Nottage plays skip-rope here. The first act, depicting Vera’s quest to be discovered, comes off like a 1940s romantic comedy. There are plenty of silly antics (and stock characters) as Vera and her friends fight to be seen. The second act details the reactions of a contemporary panel on Vera’s final televised appearance in the 1970s. Here, Nottage works with superior force, showing the emotional gambles that Vera and her long lost friend and favored enemy, Gloria Mitchell, took on the way to stardom.
Director Chuck Smith works with leveled grace, bringing out the various styles of Nottage’s writing with precision. He is aided by Riccardo Hernandez’s sleek set and Birgit Rattenborg Wise’s exquisite costuming.
The cast, meanwhile, completely mines their characters on all the levels that the script provides for them – and then some. The excellent Tamberla Perry presents a first act Vera full of self worth and regal determination. The ragged yet vibrant power she displays in the second act shows all that Vera has gone through in the intervening years. It is Kara Zediker, as the beloved Gloria, who resonates most in the show’s denouement, though. With deep sorrow and regret, she radiates with layered loss. Caught up in the hype of cinema royalty, her Gloria finally realizes all she has betrayed for public acceptance. It is a simple, yet powerful moment and fully displays Nottage’s emotional intent.
By the Way, Meet Vera Stark runs through June 2nd at the Goodman Theatre, 170 North Dearborn in Chicago. Tickets are $25-$81 and can be purchased by calling 312-443-3800 or by visiting goodmantheatre.org. – Brian Kirst