After writing two harrowing Pulitzer Prize-winning plays, “Sweat” and “Ruined,” Lynn Nottage is entitled to have a little fun. But while this revival of her new play, “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark,” walks and talks like a screwball comedy, it has a real brain in its head.
Before we get too serious, let’s meet Vera Stark. When we first lay eyes on her in 1933, Vera (Jessica Frances Dukes, in a sparkling performance) is a young African-American woman trying to break into the movies. So far, her closest brush with stardom has been working as a personal maid to Gloria Mitchell (a very appealing Jeni Barber), a kewpie doll with golden curls, known to her fans as “America’s Little Sweetie Pie.”
Gloria makes her entrance draped across a poufy bed in a white-and-gold bedroom (Clint Ramos designed the deliciously vulgar set), studying the screenplay for “The Belle of New Orleans.” She’s up for the lead role of a consumptive Southern virgin in this period potboiler (“magnolias and petticoats”), and her imminent screen test is giving her palpitations.
Between slugs of gin, Gloria runs lines with Vera, her maid, who looks trim in one of those starchy black-and-white servant getups that African-American actors inevitably found themselves wearing in films of the period. When she isn’t picking up the lines that America’s Little Sweetie Pie keeps dropping, Vera entreats Gloria to get her an audition for “The Belle of New Orleans.” There’s a role in it — a real role — for a black actress and Vera is determined to grab it.
Back home in the rooming house where Vera lives with other black actresses who are holding down day jobs while struggling to break into the movies, Nottage switches styles from screwball comedy to backstage realism, and director Kamilah Forbes effortlessly keeps in step. The comedy is still plenty tasty, but the style is much more cutting as Vera’s earthy roommate Lottie McBride (Heather Alicia Simms, great with gags) bemoans the limited roles open to actors of color — unless, like their other roommate Anna Mae Simpkins (Carra Patterson, classy), they can pass for white.
Lottie speaks from a lifetime of anger and hurt, detailing the realities that thinking people think they already know; but hearing them through Nottage’s strong dialogue and in Simms’s powerful voice is a real punch in the gut. Nonetheless, Vera persists, thinking that “maybe, just maybe, times was ready to change.” And if not for everyone, at least for Vera, who has what it takes — brains, talent, persistence, and something else that can’t quite be measured. As one admirer puts it: “You got yourself some spirit.”
After rounding up all the characters, including some we haven’t met yet, the first act ends on a note of high comedy. But the second act, trimmed and tightened after the original production at Second Stage, retains its jarring shift in style. Although Katherine Freer has come up with some very funny black-and-white projections that let us know what happened with “The Belle of New Orleans,” scenes set in 1973 and 2003 are a downer.
Instead of giving us more of what we want — which is more of Vera and her friends trying to outwit the Hollywood system of burying African-American actors in demeaning roles — Nottage introduces a trio of socio-political critics in the modern-day setting of a film forum. As these academics amusingly but fatuously pontificate on the significance of Vera Stark’s “ground-breaking” work in “The Belle of New Orleans,” the final scene of that movie is screened behind them in all its hilariously grotesque glory.
This switch to satire bears out Nottage’s cutting point that these pompous talking heads are locked into their own narrowly self-defined racial roles. But these one-dimensional parodies are too mean and obvious to offer either intellectual enlightenment or belly laughs. Boo to the eggheads — bring back Vera!