This is a story about pretty talented Black women in the 1930’s who wanted to be in the movies. It speaks to the likes of Josephine Baker, Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge. This is a story about the black imagery , limitations, stereotypes and images of Black actresses as they aspired to the screen. This is a look behind the scenes in two acts. The characters are fiction but the story is real.
Playwright, Lynn Nottage, a Pulitzer Prize winner has written a gem. The story centers on the blonde starlet “America’s Sweetie Pie” Gloria Mitchell. She is a Jeanne Harlow type. Her maid, Vera Stark played by Tambala Perry is her support system and she too is an actress. Sweetie Pie is white. Stark is Black. They are both pretty and talented and racially defined. Vera wears her maid uniform and dreams bigger about her day on the big screen. As the starlet, Gloria Mitchell, plans and entertains for a main role, Vera learns there is perhaps a role for her too. The new movie, “The Belle of New Orleans” also has a role for a “maid.” The Black women of Hollywood want it. It’s a big deal. The movie producers are making an authentic film about New Orleans.
The white director and foreign studio owner address the images they want portrayed. They want happy slaves. The Black “maids” auditioned for the roles as they serve and interact with the director and studio owner. One of the ladies passes for Brazilian with her light skin and made up accent. She is far too light for the role. Roommate Lottie McBride steals the first scene. She plays to the stereotype absolutely from dialect to the role.
Vera gets the role. She is sassy and smart. She has her white apron tightened in the waist to show her hourglass figure as she moves about. The brilliance of this play is not only the story but the set design actually shows a black and white version of the movie. There is a “Gone With the Wind” type scene that shows the maid and her dying mistress taking on the world, just the two of them. It is the essence of whites portraying black imagery. In between the actresses, there is an actor Leroy Barksdale who is really a chauffer and musician. He too has dreams and works beneath himself to get his chance.
The second act is post the movie. It looks at Vera Stark past her hey day. She appears on a talk show. Think Johnny Carson. Her day has past. She is bitter, and worn. She is part of a discussion from Black intellectuals as to what happened and what was her impact and her historical cinema meaning.
The show gets heavy as the put on is over and the real deal takes over. They look at Vera Stark in retrospect. How did she become and what did she become.
This is a brilliant story that has been untold and mistold about Black Hollywood. It is a story of dreams denied even when realized. What did Hollywood do with pretty talented women in the 1930’s, could have been the title. It shows the power of images. How Hollywood crafted the images of the “Negro” from the stereotype to the reality. It is a story of broken dreams and disappointments even when the dream is realized. How many black actresses had one role and then were cast away or stereotyped forever. There is the story of how Lena Horn’s father insisted in her movie contract that she not be cast as a maid for any reason. This story makes you appreciate the likes of Spike Lee and Tyler Perry the more because they give real life roles and images to contemporary thespians.
The genius of Chuck Smith is throughout this production. His passion is loud. It is crafted with love and the depiction is great as the story unfolds. The set design is masterful as it uses multimedia to realize the story.
This is a must see.
Goodman Theatre 170 North Dearborn
Wed., Thurs at 7:30 p.m.
Fri, Sat, 8:00 p.m.
Sat and Sun at 2p.m
Until June 2