In the first part of "By the Way, Meet Vera Stark," the new play by the formidable, Pulitzer Prize-winning scribe Lynn Nottage, a couple of African-American actresses in 1933 Hollywood are perusing a screenplay. No surprise to these women, it is to be one of those Southern plantation epics — the story of a tragically beautiful octoroon who falls in love with a white merchant. The two women share a cynical laugh about the movie studio's creative bankruptcy and inept racism, and then they get to the meat of the conundrum. One points out that the character breakdown includes slaves. Her friend perks up.
"Slaves with lines?" she asks.
It's a brilliant, three-word encapsulation of the problem that has vexed African-American actors since Hollywood first began taking movie-goers' money. The roles have varied over the years — slave, maid, chauffeur, pimp, stool-pigeon, gangbanger, mystical best friend — but they all have offered little or no affinity with life as it is really lived and little challenge for the black actor as an artist. Then again, actors have to find work in their oversubscribed profession. And if all they're offered are slaves with lines, then, well, the only real options have been either to take the role and sell your dignity, or take the role and try to quietly subvert the stereotypical mindset of the studio.
Maybe that was how Hattie McDaniel got her Academy Award for "Gone with the Wind."
That compelling question is at the core of "Vera Stark," a very interesting and cheerfully cynical, if formatively unwieldy, play that just does not get the searingly uncompromising production it needed at the Goodman Theatre.
The problem with director Chuck Smith's uncharacteristically flat production is not difficult to describe. With the exception of portions of the first act, nothing you see on stage is ever fully believable. Most everything falls in that dangerous no-man's land between satire and truth, and thus you find yourself disappointingly uninvolved with Vera (played by Tamberla Perry), an actress who fights her way into the unfriendly confines of Hollywood, only to end up — well, let's not spoil the revelation of her fate.
Nottage is interested in stereotypes and what film theorists call "subversive readings," wherein minority and women actresses filled a role and undermined its objectifying elements at the same time — Marilyn Monroe, for example, arguably offered just such a performance in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," ever ready with a self-aware wink at the camera. I think Nottage wanted to have one foot in, say, the intellectual realism of Wendy Wasserstein's "The Heidi Chronicles" (exploring a woman's life in all its complexity through changing eras), and one in the outre satire of George C. Wolfe's "The Colored Museum," a wicked parody of stereotyping of all stripes.
One sympathizes with Nottage's impulse to lampoon the way academics have dissected the lives and careers of real people as if they were mere narrative constructs, but it's tough to have both those aims going on at once in the same play. Certainly, it defeated this particular production.
"Vera Stark" has three chronological Hollywood settings — in 1933, 1973 and 2003. The first era, which takes up the first act, is by far the strongest piece of writing and follows Vera and her roommates Lottie McBride (TaRon Patton) and Anna Mae (Amelia Workman) as they work every angle in a Hollywood dominated by such plastic, white sweethearts as Gloria Mitchell (Kara Zediker), who work for studio heads like Frederick Slasvick (Patrick Clear) and pretentious directors like Maximillian Von Oster (Ron Rains) who want to appropriate the oppression of African-Americans for their own creative ego. Movie fans will see many jokes embedded in these names.
Vera and Gloria develop a relationship, albeit one undermined by inequality. But the stylistic problems start straight away. There's no palpable complexity in what Perry and Zediker have going together: the one-note Zediker is just a stereotype of the dumb movie-star and that gets old, fast. Perry, who sometimes comes off as diffident rather than a striving realist and who seems to avoid the requisite extremes of emotionally experience, has little of the necessary blend of fear, intimacy and longing, even when flirting with the man she'll eventually marry, Leroy Barksdale (Chike Johnson). Act 2 begins with an actual movie — the one Gloria and Vera made together — being shown at an academic conference on Vera's legacy. This film lasts for several dull minutes and not a single frame looks anything like an actual movie from 1933, an era when the performers may have followed certain tropes but sure were not trying to look like overwrought actresses.
And then the academics and activists (roles played, overplayed, by doubling actors) start to show a video of a talk-show interview given by an aging Stark in 1973. We see that interview performed live, which is weird and static enough without the overblown characterizations that crush believability. Both Vera and Gloria show up again together — but neither seems to have aged 20 years, let alone forty.
Given the potential and the past excellence of Smith and others, it's a confounding night of theater. The lack of unity in Riccardo Hernandez's design — huge without explaining why and choppy enough that is gets in the way of direct theatrical communication — does not help matters.
Plays about movies and movie people, especially plays that have films embedded within, are tricky indeed, not least because the different rules and layers of artifice easily can end up in pitched stylistic battles. So it goes with "Vera Stark" at the Goodman.
When: Through June 2
Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes
Tickets: $25-$81 at 312-443-3800 or goodmantheatre.orgCopyright © 2015, RedEye