Brown’s Vera Stark Is a Triumph

 

Brown University’s theater department has launched its new season with By The Way, Meet Vera Stark – a truly brilliant work with some first-rate performances. The subject matter, which deals with racial stereotyping in films, couldn’t be more timely.

In the 1930s, African-American maid Vera works for the glamorous actress Gloria Mitchell (Eleonora Saravale). Gloria is a vain and self-centered woman who never gives a thought to Vera’s feelings. Vera’s dream is to act in motion pictures and she remains hopeful that one day she will shine on the silver screen. Her friends Lottie (Maya Blake) and Anna Mae (Stella Akua Mensah) are also aspiring actresses. They are also black and have had met with rejection from an industry that typically cast black actresses in degrading slave and maid roles.

Lottie has become disillusioned by the lack of opportunities and shares her feelings: “I didn’t give up acting,” she tells Vera. “Acting gave up on me.”

Anna Mae is a vivacious sexpot who pretends to be a Brazilian diva in an attempt to get a movie role.

The story jumps forward to the present day, when a group of academics discuss Vera’s movie career. The trio screen Vera’s appearance on a 1970s talk show, where she and Gloria are reunited.

Vera’s big break was playing Tillie, a slave, in “The Belle of New Orleans,” a melodramatic tear-jerker.

Sienna Vann is enormously likable as Vera, who tragically finds her entire career defined by one role. Vann is always convincing as Vera is slowly transformed from a servant into a superstar.

Mensah has a lot of fun as the sassy Anna Mae and also shows up as one of the academics who scrutinizes Vera’s movie roles.

Randy Biagas-Hill appears as Leroy, Vera’s jazz musician boyfriend, and later as Herb Forrester, a college professor. Biagas-Hill and Vann have a wonderful chemistry together.

I also enjoyed Xavier Markey-Smith, playing both an eccentric movie director and a drugged-out rocker, to hilarious effect.

Director Kym Moore succeeds at drawing us into this unique world, along with invaluable assistance from the production staff.

Ron Cesario’s costumes, as well as the sound and lighting design, effectively capture the mood of the various time periods.

Playwright Lynn Nottage showcases the arrogance of the motion picture industry, best exemplified in a scene where a pretentious studio executive, well-played by Andrew Ganem, explains how audiences have no desire to be reminded of past atrocities in history. The executive notes they want “happy slaves” in their movies.

The question of who Vera Stark was and what she was supposed to represent also intrigued me. There is no simple answer, although a clue is revealed during the final scene.

Unfortunately, not much has really changed over the years, as African-Americans, particularly African-American actresses, struggle to overcome racial stereotyping in motion pictures. This egregious lack of diversity indicates we still have a long long way to go.

By the Way, Meet Vera Stark runs through October 9. Leeds Theatre, 83 Waterman St., Providence. 

 

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