The first act of Lynn Nottage’s BY THE WAY, MEET VERA STARK (at Lyric Stage through April 27th) is a merry send-up of Hollywood missteps, specifically in vintage movies where African-American actors almost always appeared as maids, slaves and chauffeurs. Not that contemporary movies fare a whole lot better. If you remember, Octavia Spencer got an Oscar last year for her role as a maid in THE HELP. But I digress.
Christopher Durang mined the same laughter-born-of-shame in his riotous HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN FILM but Nottage adds another layer, offering a follow-up in Act II, so we can meet the characters decades later, still talking about their seminal roles.
Nottage takes well aimed swipes at several icons of American cinema, for example, loosely blending SHOWBOAT (filmed three times and in every version a white actress in “coffee” make-up plays the mixed race role Lena Horne could have devoured) with GONE WITH THE WIND (Nottage crosses state lines and transforms GWTW into THE BELLE OF NEW ORLEANS).
In BY THE WAY, MEET VERA STARK a starlet named Gloria Mitchell (who may be “passing” for white) is as anxious to land the role of the Southern Belle (who may be passing for white) as is her maid, Vera Stark, to land the cringe worthy servant role in the aforementioned melodrama. (Hang in there. It’s not as complicated as it sounds.) Nottage spoofs the whole genre, from soup to nuts, aided and abetted in the Lyric production by Jonathan Carr, the wunderkind who filmed the outrageous faux movie results.
Director Summer L. Williams gets hilarious performances from the entire ensemble, with Kami Rushell Smith a standout as Vera Stark. Hannah Husband is deliciously distracted as Vera’s employer/confidante/sister? (This is sounding like Faye Dunaway in CHINATOWN), with Kris Sidberry a smash hit as the smart cookie who hoodwinks a pompous Russian film director (the wonderful Gregory Balla) and a dyspeptic producer (the wry Kelby T. Akin). Lyndsay Allyn Cox almost steals away the show as Vera’s wisecracking gal pal and Terrell Donnell Sledge makes marvelous music as his own one-man band.
Act II is art imitating art imitating life. Nottage reunites Vera and Gloria years later on a television talk show. That public appearance is then dissected in a university forum by a present day filmmaker and two experts in the field of historical and cultural literacy. (The abundance of debate makes Act II less rewarding than the first act but still plenty funny).
Here’s what intrigued me. Why would Nottage visit the characters again later? Might Vera’s public appearance in the ‘60s have been inspired by Butterfly McQueen? This occurs to me because McQueen, who played GWTW’s most famous character (OK, maybe Scarlet is more famous), made appearances at colleges in the late ‘60s. I saw her at Boston University, holding forth on any number of subjects with that incongruous, squeaky, little “Prissy” voice. Of course, what the students really wanted to hear was that infamous line about “birthin’ babies!” Shameful as those images are, they’re the ones we remember.
Hats off to Nottage for showing how ridiculous, not to mention immoral, the practice of restricting roles is.