The idea for "By the Way, Meet Vera Stark," now in performances through June 2 at the Goodman Theatre, came to playwright Lynn Nottage the way so many of us discover so many slivers of old Hollywood. How? By happening upon a lesser-known title on the Turner Classic Movies cable network.
There it was: "Baby Face," the astonishingly frank pre-Production Code-era artifact from 1933 starring Barbara Stanwyck as the calculating but sympathetic Nietzsche-fed survivor who runs through men like so many games of hopscotch on the way to economic security and true love. No punishment; no judgment, really, as was the case with so many bracing amorality tales of the pre-Code era.
But it wasn't just Stanwyck who caught Nottage's eye. Theresa Harris, an African-American singer and actress, enjoyed a surprisingly substantial role in "Baby Face" as Chico, the confidante and "gal Friday" of the Stanwyck character. A supporting part, yes. A maid, yes, in some scenes, once the voracious Stanwyck heroine makes her way into high society. But the friendship between the two characters was something different, something fuller and less stereotypical than usual for the day.
Nottage, whose play "Ruined" won the Pulitzer Prize in drama, got to thinking: What's this woman's story? What must have this actress' life been like, struggling to gain a foothold in an industry town made up of slippery surfaces and steep slopes? The result is part screwball comedy, part bittersweet reverie regarding the options open to African-Americans in 1930s Hollywood and beyond.
Now making its Chicago premiere after many productions elsewhere, "By the Way, Meet Vera Stark" is being directed by Chuck Smith. Tamberla Perry portrays the fictional Stark, modeled loosely on Harris as well as other black actresses in Hollywood, including Nina Mae McKinney. (Check out the latter in "Safe in Hell," another pre-Code title, sometime.) I spoke with Nottage this week from her home in Brooklyn. Fittingly, given the medium at the heart of her Hollywood-set fabulation, a local Brooklyn TV crew was shooting "day-in-the-life" footage of Nottage on the phone as we talked.
In "Baby Face," the ebullient Harris "really stole focus from Barbara Stanwyck, who was of course a formidable presence," Nottage said. "Later I realized I'd seen her on screen any number of times, playing a maid or a nightclub singer, often uncredited. And I didn't know who she was." In Nottage's play, Vera is an actress working in the early 1930s as maid to a white studio star player. Word gets out among Hollywood's African-American community about a Deep South epic being filmed (called "The Belle of New Orleans"), in which the black characters aren't entirely shoved to the sidelines. By design, said Nottage, "By the Way, Meet Vera Stark" proceeds as a series of scenes ordinarily left out of a Hollywood movie — the ones paying attention to the ordinarily sidelined black folk. "I wrote scenes set in the 'other' room, the scenes not on the screen," she said.
When censorship and civic and religious group pressures led to the full enforcement of the Production Code in mid-1934, the movies cleaned up their act. They also lost something. Suddenly, independent women, blacks, Jews and other segments of the American populace had to fight for scraps of screen time, harder than before. The best and often the most pungent of the pre-Code pictures, Nottage said, "offer a window onto what might've been possible had the movies been allowed to explore the full complexities of the country." After 1934, she argued, "the American screen narrative became much narrower, much smaller." And only when the civil rights movement gathered momentum, reshaping the American narrative, did Hollywood follow suit, in Nottage's view.
Vera Stark is the lavishly detailed subject of two web sites: findingverastark.com and meetverastark.com. The invented history of Nottage's character, she said, has "allowed me to continue and explore the character, and play with the mythology."
This Sunday, between the matinee and evening performances of "By the Way, Meet Vera Stark," Nottage and director Smith will continue that exploration. As part of the Goodman's "Artist Encounter" series, I'll moderate a discussion of the play with its maker, along with director Smith.
5 p.m. Sunday, Polk Rehearsal Room, Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.; $5 for the general public; free for subscribers, donors and students with ID. For details go to goodmantheatre.org.