Lynn Nottage’s By The Way, Meet Vera Stark is a genuinely American play, one that puts the African-American experience at the center, but still manages to resonate about larger issues.  Funny and poignant, it’s not just about race, but about the price of fame in this culture and what happens even when one is willing to pay that price.

Honestly, I didn’t know much about the play before I saw it beyond 1) Sanaa Lathan was in it  (never a bad thing); and 2) it is a Lynn Nottage play. What the latter means is, after having seen Intimate Apparel and Ruined (for which she won the Pulitzer in 2009), I’m basically down for whatever she wants to write about.

What I discovered was a couple of things. First, when you go to a Lynn Nottage play, you are in the hands of a master.  Most striking for me was to see how she transitioned from the incredibly serious material of Ruined and drew on the 1930 screwball comedy films to create the world of Vera Stark.

Second, Sanaa Lathan is a revelation. By that, I mean that while I enjoyed her performances in Love & Basketball, Alien vs. Predator, and Something New, I didn’t get much a sense of her as an actress.  Her work was passable, i.e., you knew that if she was in a film, she’d do a good job with the role, but it wouldn’t be great.  In Vera Stark, she upends all of that.  Particularly by the second act, when she appears as an older, more bitter, slightly drunken star appearing on Nottage’s version of the 1970s Mike Douglas show, she completely disappears inside the role that I found myself wondering, “Where’s Sanaa?”.  Seriously, she should get a Tony nod just for channeling an angry, don’t-give-a-fuck Lola Falana.

(l-to-r) Stephanie Block and Sanaa Lathan

The story itself is about the complicated relationship between Vera Stark (Sanaa Lathan), a headstrong black maid and budding actress and her boss, a white Hollywood star (Stephanie Block), who’s desperately trying to hold onto her career.  When they both land roles in the same Southern epic–The Belle of New Orleans— it’s Vera life that is changed forever, and not necessarily in the ways one might expect.

It’s no spoiler to tell you that everyone lands the role they’re after.  The play’s multimedia aspect, courtesy of film clips shot in a style to suggest archival footage by Nottage’s husband, Tony Gerber (an award-winning and talented director in his own right) sets up the second half of the play, in which an academic panel discussion debates Vera’s place in film and black history.

Thankfully, the play goes beyond making points about how race functions to hinder black progress and tackles the larger issue of what it means to be a trailblazer and the price that actresses such as the fictional Vera Stark and the real life Hattie McDaniel were asked to pay.  On one hand they were asked to play completely subservient roles.  But, as the question is posed, were they able to inject these roles with covert acts of resistance?  The question, given how far our actors and actresses have and haven’t come today, is how should we view these actresses in historical perspective?

In fact, it’s precisely the issue of legacy that figures most prominently in the second act. What we see during the second act is Vera’s interview on the aforementioned 70s talk show played as it really happened, but also being watched and debated by an academic panel.  Daniel Breaker of Passing Strange fame, who played the musician Leroy Barksdale in the first act, leads this panel consisting of himself, an academic (played by Kimberly Herbert Gregory, who does a great job at channeling a female Cornel West) and black lesbian poet (played by Karen Olivio).

As Vera notes, she played in over 50 films since The Belle of New Orleans, but that is the role that continued to define her career and her life.  It’s a role that always comes up in interviews and it’s one that she can’t seem to escape.  Thus, her breakout role became her prison.

While the academic argument was good, I can’t help but wondering how that dialogue would’ve played out if staged between two actresses representing opposing career choices.  Stand-ins for, say, Halle Berry and Angela Bassett would’ve provided compelling point and counterpoint, given the challenges still faced by black actresses in Hollywood.  Both women are beneficiaries of the legacy of Hattie McDaniel, but they’ve made very different choices about the roles they take.  Bassett’s MO seems to be to stick with roles in which she can play strong, in-control black women and famously turned down the lead in Monster’s Ball, the one for which Halle won the Oscar.

But don’t let that stop you from meeting Vera Stark. In any theater with a play written by Lynn Nottage, you’re in great hands.

By The Way, Meet Vera Stark is at the Second Stage Theater in New York City and runs thru June 12.

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