Goodman Theatre presents BY THE WAY, MEET VERA STARK.
It wasn’t enough for Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Lynn Nottage to establish the backstory on her main character, Vera Stark. Nottage had to give her a fleshed out existence with parents, husbands, an Oscar nomination, an autobiography, and a Vegas act. All these factoids are only hinted at in this bio-play about a black actress, whose film career launched in the 1930s.
Along with the play itself, Nottage uses multiple mediums to create the world of Vera Stark. To give authenticity to this fabricated character, Nottage launched not one but two websites; www.meetverastark.com hosted by Herb Forrester and www.bythewaymeetverastark.com/about-carmen/ hosted by Carmen Levy-Green. Both Herb and Carmen are also fictional characters in Nottage’s play. Carmen even interviews Nottage for Goodman’s newsletter. It’s a stranger-than-fiction hoax. And I think it’s brilliant. BY THE WAY, MEET VERA STARK is so unforgettably real that you might spend hours searching Netflix to rent “The Belle of New Orleans.”
In two acts, Nottage elaborately legitimizes an actress‘ rise and fall in Hollywood. In the first act, a sassy Tamberla Perry (Vera) and her roomies, a ballsy Taron Patton and the titillating Amelia Workman, are trying to break into showbiz. Although film parts are few and limiting for black actors, the trio have individual and hysterical methods for getting noticed. The already popular ‘America’s Sweetie Pie’ Kara Zediker (Gloria) is an actress competing for attention and a role. The characters are believable. The dialogue is snappy and funny. Under the skillful direction of Chuck Smith, subtle and grandiose gestures get equal billing as humorous moments. Nottage’s tribute to the past struggle of black actors is first a comedy. It feels a lot like “I Love Lucy” meets “Good Times” as these gals chase fame and share the experience of coming-from-nothing struggles. Yet, underneath these vaudevillian antics is the untold Hollywood story of the era of forgotten black actresses.
The second half of the play is split between the reenactment of a 1970’s talkshow interview of Vera and a modern day critique of her life’s achievement by a panel of experts. In the second act, except for Perry and Zediker, the rest of the talented ensemble assume completely different roles. A lime-leisure-suited Patrick Clear (Brad), the stoned Ron Rains (Peter) and now the seasoned vixen Perry dole out hearty laughs in their television segment. On the other side, Chike Johnson (Herb) mediates the Stark debates between an academic Patton and a revolutionary Workman. Vera’s fame and shame becomes a poignant example of the African-American experience in Hollywood. This show combines innovation and illusion. The resulting invention has a dizzying impact.
Vera Stark is real. I was at her audition. I saw the Academy Award nominee clip of her movie. I watched her on the Brad Donovan show. I even googled her and found websites dedicated to her film career. Nottage and Smith impressively use intricate subterfuge to tell the story of Vera Stark. Her pretend existence becomes an ironic tribute to the forgotten black actors. BY THE WAY, MEET VERA STARK looks at the civil rights movement from the Hollywood perspective.
Running Time: Two hours and thirty minutes includes an intermission
At Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn
Written by Lynn Nottage
Directed by Chuck Smith
Wednesdays, Thursdays at 7:30pm
Fridays, Saturdays at 8pm
Saturdays, Sundays at 2pm
Thru June 2nd
Buy Tickets at www.goodmantheatre.org