By Lynn Nottage; Directed by Kamilah Forbes
Off Broadway, Play Revival
Runs through 3.10.19
Signature Theatre, 480 West 42nd Street
by Sarah Moore on 2.19.19
Jessica Frances Dukes, Jenni Barber, and Heather Alicia Simms in By the Way, Meet Vera Stark. Photo by Joan Marcus.
BOTTOM LINE: Kamilah Forbes' refreshing revival of By the Way, Meet Vera Stark reinvigorates the play for 2019.
In 2011, By the Way, Meet Vera Stark premiered at Second Stage, on the heels of Lynn Nottage’s first Pulitzer Prize-winning play Ruined. As a satirical dark comedy, it wasn’t what audiences were expecting of Lynn Nottage, and it probably wasn’t what they were expecting in 2011. In its 2019 revival, New York theater may finally have caught up with Vera Stark.
Directed by Kamilah Forbes, the Signature Theatre production stars Jessica Frances Dukes as Vera, an aspiring African American actress working as a maid for the glamorous movie star Gloria Mitchell (Jenni Barber). In the 1930s, there is little space for black actresses in the movies, so when Vera discovers there is a great part for a maid in this Southern epic The Belle of New Orleans—a slave with lines?!—she goes after it.
The first act focuses on the Hollywood of the 30s, the players in the movie business, and the life of Vera Stark before she wins the big role of Tilly the maid, and how Gloria Mitchell fits into it all. Lottie McBride (Heather Alicia Simms) and Anna Mae Simpkins (Carra Patterson) are Vera’s roommates, and also aspiring for careers in show business. The breezy comedy in act one plays out as Gloria ends up hosting a big-shot Hollywood director at her apartment, where Lottie joins her to help serve Gloria’s guests, and Anna Mae shows up on the arm of one of the men, pretending to be Brazilian.
The show is sharply satirical and extremely funny; Forbes’ direction emphasizes the satire and the screwball comedy, highlighting the craziness of the situations. Forbes expertly weaves together the tonal and genre shifts embedded in the text, making the transitions seamless. Many of the subtle jokes that went over my head in 2011 land much differently, and better, in 2019.
This is particularly true of the second act, set in 2003 at a panel entitled “Rediscovering Vera Stark, the Legacy of the Belle of New Orleans.” This take on academic discourse lands much differently in 2019, as more of the audience laughs knowingly as the panelists hawk their books and examine the influence of Vera Stark on modern culture. (The host is played by Warner Miller, who also plays Leroy, Vera’s love interest, in the first act; Simms and Patterson return in this act to play panelists Carmen Levy Green and Afua Assata Ejobo.)
As they watch a video clip of Vera Stark on a talk show from 1973. Afua Assata Ejobo (“journalist and poet and performer”) declares “She got tired. She got angry. She got, how should I say it? She got real. She got real. She got radicalized.” This sort of cultural examination, particularly of female cultural figures, is much more in the mainstream in 2019 than it was in 2011. The audience laughs knowingly at such sweeping assertions and questions. For all the discourse and progress made in the last eight years, the questions, the problems, and the conversations haven’t advanced all that much.
As Vera and Gloria in 1973, Frances Dukes and Barber are completely believable as the older versions of their characters from the first half, and also extremely funny as they interact in an appropriately tense manner. Frances Dukes, in particular, nails the exhaustion of an aging actress, particularly an aging actress of color, being asked to explain her success. Though Vera Stark runs a little long, and sometimes seems a bit disjointed, Forbes’ fresh production proves why it’s worth rediscovering Vera Stark once again.
(By the Way, Meet Vera Stark plays at the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, through March 10, 2019. The running time is 2 hours 25 minutes with one intermission. Performances are Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:30; Saturdays at 2 and 8; and Sundays at 2. Tickets are $35 through March 3, and $35 - $60 beginning March 5, and are available at signaturetheatre.org or by calling 212-244-7529.)
By the Way, Meet Vera Stark is by Lynn Nottage. Directed by Kamilah Forbes. Scenic Design by Clint Ramos. Lighting Design by Matt Frey. Costume Design by Dede M. Ayite. Sound Design by Mikaal Sulaiman. Projection Design by Katherine Freer. Hair and Wig Design by Mia Neal. Composer is Daniel Kluger. Production Stage Manager is Laura Wilson.
The cast is Jenni Barber, Jessica Frances Dukes, Manoel Felciano, Warner Miller, Carra Patterson, Heather Alicia Simms, and David Turner.