The 1930s, the Golden Age of Hollywood, conjure the image of glamorous actors and actresses glittering with gold, scarlet lipstick and furs. This is the world into which Lynn Nottage’s comedy “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark” transports the audience. However, something vile hides beneath that glamor: racism. Despite challenges due to this racism, African-American actress Vera Stark is determined to get her big break.
“By the Way, Meet Vera Stark” premieres at Ursinus on Feb. 23 at 7:30 p.m. in the Kaleidoscope’s Lenfest Theater. There will also be performances at 7:30 on the 24th and 25th, as well as a 2 p.m. matinee on the 26th. The play is directed by Professor Domenick Scudera and stars theater majors Mya Flood ’18 as struggling actress Vera Stark and Charlotte Torres ’18 as movie star Gloria Mitchell.
Vera Stark is an up-and-coming African-American actress who works tirelessly to be on the silver screen. While she is pursuing her big break, she also works as a maid for the white movie star Gloria Mitchell. By coincidence, the women land roles in the same southern epic. Vera plays an enslaved woman, but she does it with hilarity and irony. Through this comedy, Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Lynn Nottage shines a light on racism in Hollywood.
The character of Vera is based on the 1930s African-American actress Theresa Harris, who was almost never included in the credits of her films. She was also paid less than white actors and her parts were usually limited to those of a slave or maid.
Racism and colorism in the movie industry persist even today, as Flood, who has done Summer Fellows research on the subject, explained.
“There is a divide in the industry between darker women and lighter women: Lighter women get more roles,” she said.
In addition to this, Flood noted that many black actresses are typecast. The second act of the play transports the audience to the 1970s where a panel of critics is looking back at Vera Stark’s films and her influence on the film industry. Unfortunately, Vera’s characters over the years are referred to as “sassy side characters.”
Flood said that this is still true in the industry today.
“There are a bunch of black women that are being put to the side for sassy comebacks,” she said.
Flood cited examples of stereotypes such as the singular black secondary characters in movies like “Clueless” and “Ten Things I Hate About You,” as well as the matriarch trope which often depicts black women as independent, unfeeling or emotionless.
Flood feels that we need to recognize the stereotypes and write more creative characters for women of color.
She believes that when watching “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark,” we should realize the necessity of “giving black actors a chance and recognizing that there is an injustice, something that is not being recognized in American cinema, theater, and art.”
Sophomore Angela Bey, who plays Vera’s roommate and fellow actress Lottie, agrees.
“Representation isn’t enough anymore. It’s easy to place black women in the background of some passing shot, or as the best friend of the protagonist—if we’re lucky—and for audiences to shout ‘Diversity!’ and ‘Brava! Brava!.’” said Bey. “We need black, female characters with dimension and stories that don’t pander to that white-washed conception of who [black women have] to be.”
Bey also explained how the play actively works against the norms surrounding how black women are cast and treated in the film industry.
“The black woman should not boxed in; that is not the representation that I want or appreciate,” said Bey. “[With ‘Vera Stark’] Nottage is directly commenting on the double-reinforced glass ceiling that black women have been pressed against and clawing at for years and years and years. Characters and stories like Vera Stark’s are taking a baseball bat, looking up and going: ‘I’m not playing games anymore!’ And we aren’t. I’m certainly not.”
“By the Way, Meet Vera Stark” is about the story behind the cameras—the story that the audience has likely never seen. It is about the African-American men and women behind the roles that we see in movies and how these actors are much more than the stereotypes. Nottage tells Vera’s story for all the people having worked in the movie business whose stories are untold and for all of the women of color who have never gotten a chance to be recognized.
It does all of this with laughter too. The play contains serious themes, but at the same time is a farcical comedy. Overall, Vera’s story is one of hope, according to Flood, because through hard work she is able to grace the silver screen. With her fame, she is able to advocate for political change.
Flood explained that through Vera’s character, she hopes to instill a positive message in the audience.
“[I’m] trying to convey hope, determination and the importance of hard work,” said Flood. “Nothing is ever given to you in life, you have to go out and take it. I think that what I really try and convey when I’m playing Vera is the fact that I am always working, always trying to push my counterpart, Gloria Mitchell, to do better and to put herself out there.”
Tickets for “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark” are available online at ursinus.edu/tickets.