The Lyric Stage Company’s production of “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark” follows the career of Vera Stark, an aspiring black actress of the 1930’s. taking a stark (pun intended) look at race, in the limelight.
We meet Vera Stark (Kami Rushell Smith) works for a Caucasian actress Gloria Mitchell (Hannah Husband) who has had minimal success, as an assistant and confidant. Vera has a sassy and smart personality which shines brightest in her relationship with Gloria. The pair has a sister-like relationship with Vera playing the wiser older sister figure and Gloria the bratty spoiled one, though they are around the same age. When the story commences, Gloria is in line to get the role of a lifetime though she seems unworthy where as Vera struggles to convince Gloria that she is worthy enough to have a role of a maid with speaking lines.
Vera lives with two other aspiring actresses Lottie (Lyndsay Allen Cox) and Anna Mae (Kris Sidberry). Both women have had minor roles throughout their lack luster acting careers. Lottie, who’s tired of the casting calls and couches, has given up her dreams of acting resolving herself to be a seamstress. Anna Mae, who too has tired of conventional ways of getting work, embarks in the risky business of dating famous directors; though, not as herself, but as a desirable and color safe Brazilian actress.
The height of the characters interaction culminates at an important dinner party; with code-switching at the center. Vera is subjected to wearing traditional maid clothing, and at the prospect of getting a role, plays up and her maid act in hopes of impressing the director; Lottie joins in on the act, suddenly vying for her chance in the pictures, and Annie Mae rolls her “r’s” and bats her eyes like nobody’s business. And then there’s Herb (Terrell Donnell-Sledge), Vera’s love interest…well almost – who doesn’t quite know what to make of the scene nor his attraction to Vera.
After intermission, we fast forward to the present day at symposium where film experts are dissecting Vera’s career and subsequent disappearance from the limelight. The characters change into different roles, and the audience becomes spectators along with the actors viewing film clips and scenes of Vera’s last documented interview.
In essence there are two performances. One where we are introduced to Vera Stark and her struggles as an actress , and the second where we are posed with questions of code switching and the limited roles in Hollywood for black actors. The piece begs the question: If talented actresses of that time had been given a breath of roles, would Hollywood have been forever changed?
The production is rare one for actors. Black characters are central while Caucasian actors are supporting. Rarer still “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark” allows actors to play more than one role, in more than one decade with more than one medium: film, video and theater. Lyndsay Allen-Cox (Lottie/Carmen Levy-Green) spoke on the support that they received from their director and set designer Jonathan Carr. “They really prepared us for the film shoots and for the production, we had a pretty truncated timeline in comparison to other production timelines, and we just really had a great support staff. We all just get along well so that was fun.”
When approaching their dual roles, the actors welcomed the challenge of playing different characters. What Kami Rushell Smith learned from playing Vera’s character was to hopefully not have her same fate of bitterness and anger when she gets older. She also gave director Summer L. Williams credit for allowing the actors to play and figure each character out in their own way.
The characters with the more founded archetypes were easier for the actors to delve into. The louder flamboyant character of Lottie for example, was easier for actress Lyndsay Allen Cox to play than the more underwhelming Carmen Levy-Green, film critic and author. She had this to say about code-switching, “Lottie and Vera are different when it’s just the two of us then when we are at Gloria’s, so we just play these different roles, which I think is just what people do …I feel like black people have to do that a lot. When I’m with my family, I’m a lot different than when I’m at work. I’m only one of two black people that work at my school, so my personality has to be different in order to get through the day.”
I posed to the group the question about actors who have been criticized for choosing to do the mammy and gangster roles, and if we penalize them too much for taking those roles. Donnell-Sledge said, “The line [drawn] in a lot of ways is determined by who is in control of those images, and who is defining those images. I try to avoid ones that I personally am not comfortable with, but I am fortunate that someone has also not offered me millions of dollars [to do something like that]. In the same way I don’t think I can penalize actors who do. My hope is that they we would gain more control of those images.”
Smith responded by quoting Hattie McDaniel ‘I’d rather make $700 a week playing a maid than earn $7 a day being a maid.’ She says that she doesn’t think that it’s fair that we’re in a position that we have to make those decisions, but learned early on that she had to navigate them.
So where is Hollywood in all of this? Are they sending a message by celebrating stereotypical roles? Kris Sidberry doesn’t think so. “I honestly don’t think you can blame Hollywood because if the black community doesn’t support other things, then it’s not going to change because the bottom line is money and our dollar is a vote.” Allyn-Cox added, “I think what is tricky is making the choice, ‘no I don’t want to do that movie’, or ‘no, I’m not going to do that play’ because if we all said that then maybe they’d stop making them, but then what would we be doing? Are there enough writers out there writing black actors in a positive realistic light?”
Donnell-Sledge said it may be the images that we have learned to expect that may contribute to Hollywood being less likely to change them, “Like with Denzel Washington in ‘Training Day’ we say things like ‘well he did something that was real life’ because that’s what I see on the news, and that’s what we’ve been seeing for years. We’re still combating those false images that have been put out there so much that people believe them. If more people believe in the false image, then suddenly reality now becomes fake.”
As the characters in the play are actors, I wondered if themes in the play hit close to home. Kris Sidberry whose character Annie Mae “passes” for Brazilian, talked about a new sort of passing. “Being Hispanic now is really popular, and I know [actors] who will change their name who are not Hispanic. As an actor you really have to be honest with yourself and say ok – this is what I look like and this is what I’m not willing to share about my life so that I can get a role.”
In the end all actors approach their roles as a job, and what role they take depends on what the show is about. Smith says “I may play a maid, but it’s a maid with a personality. [I’ll take it] If [I’m] playing a person as opposed to their position in life. And if we didn’t play those roles, what would they do?”
See the thought-provoking and incredibly executed performances in “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark “at The Lyric Stage Company (140 Claredon Street) 2nd Floor until April 27th. Tickets can be purchased through their website at lyricstage.com