A search on the Encyclopedia Britannica website for Vera Stark yields two hits: Mike Leigh, a British writer and director, and the National Science Foundation. Vera Stark has no Wikipedia page, and if one ignores references to Lynn Nottage‘s play By the Way, Meet Vera Stark (Goodman Theatre, through June 2) and to a South African lawyer named Vera Stark in the novel None to Accompany Me, LexisNexis is also silent when it comes to Vera Stark. One might as well be tracking John Galt.
Those who take the time to carefully read the Playbill and the Goodman news releases — both of which bury this lede — will know that Stark is a fictional creation of Nottage’s, modeled on marginalized and typecasted African American actresses of the 1930s. It further complicates things that sites post deceptive “proof” of Stark’s existence: a Hollywood star, a disappearance myth, and excerpts from an alleged autobiography It Rained on My Parade.
Nottage’s play (directed by Chuck Smith) also features alleged video footage of Stark, and a pseudo-academic panel about her legacy in the second act — which deserves much of the criticism it is receiving, including from Ben Brantley’s New York Times review, which calls the “parody of convoluted academic theory” largely “flabby, and there is too much of it.”
But the first act is very compelling theater, as Vera (cleverly and comically played by Tamberla Perry) tries everything she can think of (including flattery and begging) to get her big break as an actress. As Stark struggles though, Gloria Mitchell (Kara Zediker), who employs Stark as a maid, sees her star continue to rise without much effort, providing a stark contrast to Stark.
In the end, though, even as Stark becomes a star in her own right, a perfect storm has rallied against her. She’s seen as a one-trick pony so she only receives certain kinds of diminutive roles; and when they debate her legacy, academics all try to co-opt Stark and use her as a prop in their contradictory theories. By becoming a symbol of everything, she stands for nothing.
Even with a humorous and witty script, it’s hard not to be cynical based on what the play reveals about race and the loneliness that comes along with achieving success. By meeting the fictional Vera Stark, who achieved many of her dreams in a way that other African American actresses of the time never could, viewers are left to ponder a disturbing what-if scenario — although it can be tough in that creative non-fiction space to separate history from fiction.
[See fellow ChicagoNow blogger Voices of N’DIGO’s post on the show.]