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Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage’s new play By the Way, Meet Vera Stark opened at the Second Stage Theatre on April 6, 2011 to guffaws and robust applause. The play puts a playful twist on what Daphne Brooks calls “America’s miscegenated history” in order to recuperate the story of a forgotten black actress. Fittingly a comedy, Nottage’s play calls to mind the ongoing melodrama that is race relations in the United States. From the saga that Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings has become to the ongoing and offensive questions regarding President Barack Obama’s citizenship, the popular conversation about race seems to leap in the blink of an eye from the postracial world of the twenty-first century as Hortense Spillers describes in her provocative piece “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Too” to the scientific racism of the nineteenth century epitomized in a racist email Tea Party activist Marilyn Davenport sent to her constituency, picturing Obama’s parents as chimpanzees.
Using the temporal confusion race triggers in the twenty-first century to her dramaturgical advantage, Nottage’s play, directed by Jo Bonney, shuttles the viewer seamlessly through different time periods in the twentieth century, from 1933 to 1973 to 2003. The play offers an uproarious insight into the life of Vera Stark (Sanaa Lathan), an African American woman striving to become a Hollywood actress while working as the maid of a famous purportedly white actress Gloria Mitchell (Stephanie J. Block). By the end of a play that focuses on how the choices we make determine who we will become, we learn that Gloria is Vera’s cousin and that Gloria is passing for white. Laugh out loud funny, innovative in its staging and powerful in its organization, Nottage’s new play, playfully reveals the way that U.S. racial mixtries— a term used in Langston Hughes’ Broadway play Mulatto (1935) that communicates mixtures that are mysteries—create lines of contentious affiliation among women.
America’s miscegenated history usually stars an empowered white man and a subordinated black woman, triggering national anxiety about the all-too-common but still apparently shocking subject position of their potential mixed race children. Sidelining the threat of renegade coupling, Nottage’s play calls attention to an alternative history that foregrounds the role of women in familial and communal organization. Her play presents coconspirators separated not by their sex but by their complexion. The shift in the point of difference—from sex to complexion—enables an alternative history of racial affiliation and disaffiliation to emerge. In this way, Nottage’s play has much in common with Nella Larsen’s Passing, a Harlem Renaissance novel that depicted a dangerous friendship between two women who could pass for white. Nottage’s new millennial update of the familiar passing narratives of the 1920s presents two women from the same family who experience the world drastically differently due to their complexion. Gloria lives in a mansion with a living room lavishly appointed with white and cream furniture and accents. Vera lives in a rooming house that she shares with at least two other women. The play suggests that Gloria benefits from her complicated friendship with Vera in ways that Vera never will. Nevertheless, Vera makes use of her association with Gloria. As Gloria’s maid, confidant, cheerleader, therapist, and acting coach, the play features scenes in which Vera rehearses Gloria’s lines with her. For example, the play opens with the women melodramatically acting out a scene that Gloria will audition for that day. At the onset of the play, the audience does not know that the characters are practicing for an audition. As the scene ends, the audience realizes that the women are acting, pointing out Vera’s and Gloria’s knowledge of the artifice of their overblown theatrics. While the opening scene establishes the women’s awareness of the roles that they choose to play it also reveals Vera’s relatively privileged position. Serving as Gloria’s acting coach gives Vera access to the script. In reading it, Vera notices a role not only for Gloria but also for herself as a maid named Tillie. Meeting the director and the producer of the film at Gloria’s house, Vera auditions for the role of Tillie on the spot.
Act II opens with black and white footage of Vera’s first movie (1933) in which she plays, making a twisted comment on art imitating life, Gloria’s maid. The inclusion of the footage establishes the organization of the second act around snippets of film from a 1973 interview as it produces evidence of Vera’s defining role. In auditioning for the part Vera confesses, “tonight I did something I never thought I would do and I’m not going back.” While the entire first act of the play presents Vera’s tireless, sometimes buffoonish, often hilarious efforts to win a role in a movie, the second act presents the so-called fruits of her labor. Following the footage from the movie, the time shifts to 2003. A panel of critics enters the stage and welcomes the audience to a symposium. The symposium seeks to rediscover Vera Stark in a manner reminiscent of black women in the academy’s reclamation of Zora Neale Hurston. In 1973 on the Brad Donovan Show, Vera gave her last interview. Thirty years later, the panel convenes to examine the footage of the interview and offer conjecture about what happened to Vera Stark.
In the footage, Vera enters the stage in a multicolored dress and sings. The host asks Vera to recite her famous line from the movie. She complies and says, “stay awake and together we’ll face a new day.” The line permanently links Vera in the popular cultural imagination to Gloria and suggests that the black woman Vera plays in the film will not be able to go on with her life if the white woman that she serves dies. Donovan’s insistence that the line “stay awake and together we’ll face a new day” remain stuck to the tip of Vera’s tongue points to a larger cultural desire that keeps Vera tethered to her cinematic debut. Although Vera champions herself as a social activist, bragging that she wore a dashiki before Malcolm X, the host of the show insists on seeing her as Gloria’s maid. An association reinforced when Gloria joins the show and comments on her relationship with Vera. Although Gloria attempts to gloss over the implicit hierarchy in their relationship, Vera insists that she was Gloria’s maid but that they go back further than that. Gloria confesses that she and Vera first acted together on the Vaudeville stage. Recalling their childhood show, the two women break into song. Returning to their seat, Donovan questions if the theater circuit was integrated. In one of several moments that calls Gloria’s racial identity into question, Gloria quickly glosses over the question and places emphasis on the importance of their sisterly bond.
While Gloria’s easygoing nonchalance in the second act makes Vera’s disgruntlement palpable, the play carefully asserts Vera’s complicity in her restricted roles—professionally and socially. Making a incisive comment on how the roles we willingly play inform popular cultural perceptions of race, the play troubles an interpretation of Gloria as a white woman who selfishly profits from her social privilege and Vera as a sympathetic victim of racism who nevertheless played the hand she was dealt the best way she could. The final scene depicts Vera and Gloria at a movie shoot, wondering what life would have been like “if we’d stayed in Brooklyn with Granny?” The tenderness of the final scene alongside Vera’s admission at the end of Act I that she crossed certain boundaries that she never thought she would begs for an understanding of race as a fluid and moving in different directions. The play presents race as causing crosscurrents of affiliation, waves of collectivity, and social short circuits that rewire lines of affiliation, rewrite family trees, and reconfigure social relationships of the past and future. The bodies we see on stage do not determine the roles the women will play. They alone make those decisions, yet we all must live with the consequences.
Soyica Colbert is an Assistant Professor of English at Dartmouth College. Her first book The African American Theatrical Body: Reception, Performance and the Stage is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press, November 2011. She is currently working on a second book project entitled Black Movements: Performance, Politics, and Migration. She has published articles on James Baldwin, Alice Childress, and August Wilson. President of the Black Theater Association and co-founder of the New England Black Scholars Collective, Colbert’s interests span the 19th-21st centuries, from William Wells Brown to Beyoncé and from poetics to performance.