by Lynn Nottage
Directed by Summer L. Williams
Review by Kitty Drexel
(Boston) The events of By the Way, Meet Vera Stark appear to be comedic. In truth, viewed with the perspective of historical racial prejudice, it is more like a tragedy. Vera Stark is a Black actress living in Los Angeles and nursing a dream of appearing on the big screen as more than an anonymous face in a club scene. She dreams of being a character that isn’t a slave and definitely isn’t a “Mammy” role. Determined to make her mark in Hollywood, Stark rallies her friends and boss Gloria, and manages to slightly alter bureaucratic race relations at the same time. It was one small step for woman and a held breath for the rest of mankind.
Nottage’s Vera Stark navigates in short order the very difficult road men and women of color have traveled towards equality on the screen and off. Many of the funny “jokes” in the first half of the play aren’t actually all that funny considering today’s notable lack of equality in the arts. In this production, the characters situated in the 1930’s time period are caricatures of White and Black stereotypes: Stark and her friends are poor and often ignored. The White characters revel in opulence and attention. These caricatures serve neither race well and Stark is forced to sacrifice her dignity in order to further her career. In the play, Stark has made big waves by tackling a larger role on screen but she also pandered to false realities in order to do so.
The cast has excellent chemistry. They play off of each other and push buttons like family members. There is a nice gave and take on stage. At times, the play’s momentum can appear to slow down. This is not the fault of our actors. It’s at these times that Nottage burdens the audience with insights into the life experiences of her characters. There is a lot of “talk” in this show that leads to little action but the “talk” should give the audience perspective into the lives of the characters.
Although the racism isn’t nearly as blatant today, mainstream media designed for a broader (i.e. White) audience relegates people of color* to supporting roles. Vera Stark may be set during the Great Depression but the events could have been set during the US’s recent recession. Stark, the character, is made a figurehead for Civil Rights Movement. She is notable for making great strides as a Black actress but blamed for not doing more. When once she was lauded for her work, she becomes blamed for the stagnation of civil rights in Hollywood. Despite the bleak topics that Vera Stark discusses, the hard work of the cast fills this production with light. The state of inequality in the arts is nothing to laugh at but the cast entreats you to laugh and enjoy their production anyhow.
*Anyone who isn’t White. This should be obvious. If it isn’t you need more help than I can give you.