Cross posted at Ms.

Looking for an evening of entertainment that’s humorous, thought provoking, and possibly paradigm changing? The West Coast premiere of African American Pulitzer Prize-winner Lynn Nottage‘s new play By the Way, Meet Vera Stark is your ticket. But it’s not your typical evening of theater.

Directed by Jo Bonney and featuring Sanaa Lathan (The Cleveland Show, Boss), this Los Angeles production chronicles, satirizes, and interrogates representations of race and sex in film and television in 1933, 1973, and 2003. Using a multi-media approach, it starts a conversation that resonates well outside the theater’s walls.

The plot centers on Vera Stark, a fictional composite of such real Hollywood actors as Theresa Harris, Hattie McDaniel, and Ethel Waters: women of incomparable talent relegated to playing maids and slaves. Vera is joined by her roommates–Lottie, an accomplished Shakespearean now going in for mammy roles, and visibly mixed-race Anna Mae–in a desire to secure speaking roles in a new Southern epic. Vera works as a real life maid for Gloria, an actor known as “America’s Sweetie Pie,” and the two have been close for years. Working together to fool the white producer and director into believing that they are actually a perky blonde virgin (Gloria), an illiterate woman so burdened by her heritage that she’s just got to sing the blues (Vera), a Brazilian from Rio de Janero (Anna Mae), and a mammy (Lottie), these ambitious women serve up a lot of drinks and a lot of laughs.

Act II opens with a clip of The Belle of New Orleans, the Southern epic in which the ladies were so eager to get parts. They did, and, we learn as the play takes us forward in time, the movie and Vera’s character specifically have become iconic. In 1973, Vera and Gloria appear on a talk show together, and in 2003, a panel of black academics discusses Vera’s legacy. The 1973 Vera Stark has become an alcoholic and is starring in a show in Vegas. Gloria, who left Hollywood to live in London, is in town receiving an award. Though it almost comes out, the world never learns the true nature of the relationship between Vera and Gloria; the academics can only speculate as to whether they were costars and friends, mistress and maid, lesbian lovers, or cousins. The audience of the play does learn the truth (SPOILER ALERT): Gloria is in fact Vera’s cousin and an octoroon.

Both acts travel at the pace of a Noël Coward play, and both investigate period specific cultural paradigms. In Act II we meet a Dick Cavett-esque talk show host, a ’70s rocker ala Mick Jagger, a black revolutionary poet with an African name, a Cornel West-like writer and film maker, and a black woman academic with a hyphenated name who keeps getting interrupted. Savvy audience members may also recognize references to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Camille and The Dutchman.

Nottage, a graduate of Brown and Yale and the recipient of both a Guggenheim Fellowship and a MacArthur Grant, is known for writing history-rich plays. For her 2009 Pultizer winning play Ruined she traveled to Africa to interview refugees and witness local traditional performances. For her break-out hit Intimate Apparel, she delved into the living and working conditions of urban African Americans in the early 20th century. Nottage told the Ms. Blog that for By the Way, Meet Vera Stark,

I researched the entire period, so I read about Hattie MacDaniel and Ethel Waters and Theresa Harris and found the films with them and just watched and watched. It’s really interesting to see representations of women in the pre-code Hollywood films versus the films just after the code. They have sexuality, they are independent, they’re self-possessed. They really resemble women that we know today. And then those women disappear for 20, 25 years and it isn’t until the ’60s and ’70s that we see representations of those women again.

But this isn’t just a history play. Very real and relatable characters allow the audience to invest emotionally and to enjoy watching how they deal with the boxes into which they’ve been put. And the comedy of the play, along with the powerhouse performances of the women in it, makes the production much more than an intellectual exercise. Director Jo Bonney shares,

We had always talked about it as having the quality of the screwball comedy of the ‘30s, and the thing was to just go there, to be unabashed, and believe that if in fact we got too serious it would feel like we were trying to hit people over the head with it. It’s satire, and satire has always been the cleverest way to point out social and political issues.

This satire definitely does it’s political job: the show is a genuine conversation starter about the extent to which stereotypes still guide casting in film and television. Bonney talks about the difference between doing it in New York and in Los Angeles:

Here I really hear people talking about it afterwards. And you can hear audible responses to references and moments that are really about the industry. At the opening a [couple of film directors] were talking about how potent it was to see it here. Once you’ve seen it, it exists within you, it’s become part of your experience. And I just don’t think you could ever really look at a script again or telling a story with that not in your consciousness.

To make sure people keep it in their consciousness, Nottage has created a virtual Vera Stark as well: Two of the fictional academics in the play have their own websites about her (Rediscovering Vera Stark and Finding Vera Stark). Nottage has even made a video documentary about her. She told Ms.,

The journey of the website is that you move from investigating [Vera’s] life, that’s very like the lives of a lot of those women, to these images of Ethyl Waters and Theresa Harris and Hattie MacDaniel and then to vaudeville. And so I’m inviting [the audience] to go a little deeper into an investigation of what it was like to be an African American performer at that time. It’s designed to lure people into probing deeply into these people’s lives.

At the very least, the women making this show are probing deeply. Click here to read more of their conversation and catch the show while you can!

By the Way, Meet Vera Stark runs through October 28 at The Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles.

Photo of Amanda Detmer and Sanaa Lathan by Michael Lamont.

The women behind Lynn Nottage’s new play By the Way, Meet Vera Stark (see here for more) talk about the issues raised in the play and it’s relationship to their lives:

How have race and gender functioned for you in your careers? How do you see them guiding casting in Hollywood today?

Kimberly Hébert Gregory (Lottie/Carmen Levy-Green): I think [in] parts of this industry there’s this notion that now that our country is led by an African American man with an African American wife and two black children, there’s a part of the industry that’s like well that’s not our responsibility any more because the country has decided that there’s a greater example. But see here’s the challenge, if the president is black, why couldn’t your neighbor now be black? Why couldn’t your neighbor now be Asian? Why couldn’t it just break it open because on one level the country decided for a moment that we can believe that this person is capable of doing it? So I’m sort of sitting back like Vera and Lottie waiting, being really optimistic that the industry will then catch up with the country and say we don’t even need to have blonde, brunette because everybody is capable. Let’s open up.

Amanda Detmer (Gloria): I for sure have gotten thrown into this role of the best friend. I don’t think we’ve come very far at all. It’s particularly difficult for women and it doesn’t matter if you’re black, red, white, or blue. It’s just the expectations are so low they can’t even see past them to what you have to offer.

Kimberly: But that’s gender and race in Hollywood. I mean it doesn’t matter if it’s a white woman–she still has to fit into something. She has to fit into a box that has been created for her.

Merle Dandridge (Anna Mae/Afua Assata Ejobo): I would like to offer the other side of the coin which is, like Anna Mae, I think my ethnic ambiguity has kind of made me a little bit more naïve to all of that. Because everyday is so different. I don’t know what is going to be thrown at me because people will look at me and maybe some people will see the Asian side of me one day, the African American side another and sometimes an ethnicity I don’t have a drop of. Today, I went in for a role with older black women. Then I’ll go in for something else with younger blonde models. I’ve never felt boxed, and part of that is terrifying but it’s also very challenging because I feel like I owe it to myself and I also owe it to the people who have the courage to [deal with stereotyping] that that I have to rise to the occasion.

Amanda: You’re a white girl’s worst nightmare – [LAUGHTER]

Kimberly: You’re a black girl’s worst nightmare, too. [LAUGHTER]

Amanda: – because of your exotic beauty that is ambiguous.  This is the ideal right now.

Sanaa Lathan (Vera): We’ve definitely come very far. All you have to do is look at my resume and see that this is the first maid I’ve played. Even just in the course of my career I’ve seen more and more of my peers working in all mediums, TV and Film and theater.  Now is it as far as I would like? No. But I do see more of my African American peers making a living at being an actor. I would like to see more stories about people being told in more variety of ways, yes, and yet I do feel like we’re making progress.

Kimberly: But I’ve also watched the vanishing act of the black woman on screen in a way that’s real personal to me. There are fewer Viola Davises. It’s the vanishing of specifically identified black women, which I fall into. Outside of the way I look it’s also who I am as an actor. My particular presence is very specifically black. I’m classically trained, I can do everything, but I also know when I walk into the room what it sounds like when this mouth opens. So I think when I look at who I am and how I can be reflected on screen I do see it vanishing. And it’s vanishing because there’s a desire for something softer. Because they have to want to see you every week in their home. That’s the reality. And I think it is still a challenge. It is still a hard sell to get Kerri Washington in your house every week. That was a hard sell for Shonda Rhimes. It’s a hard sell because of the homes that they want to get into. Kerri’s welcome in my home. Kerri may be welcome in your home. It’s Ohio. It’s will they watch.

Merle: The passion with which these things are being said is just another testament to what’s happening the play. People are so passionate, for good reason, talking about having to fit themselves into a stereotype [that] doesn’t even touch the full spectrum of what somebody is.

How did these issues play out in rehearsal?

Sanaa: I don’t think of Vera when I’m playing her as a woman who’s been defined by the fact that she’s been playing maids. She’s such a beautiful, funny, interesting, smart character. This is one of the most complex roles I’ve ever played. And so at the end of her journey she’s kind of embittered by how her life has gone but that’s not how I think of her and that’s not how it feels to play her. The whole first half of the play is her being hopeful and dreaming, even in this world she lives in. That’s what actors do, we’re dreamers.

Merle: I don’t think [race got dealt with] as directly as you would think, but I think maybe on a subconscious level. For me, that’s a day in the life. I grew up in Nebraska where everybody was blonde and blue-eyed. And I was out of place when I went to Memphis where my dad was from and I was high yella and talking funny. So it’s normal for me to kind of navigate those (quoting the play) “das unausgesprochene”–the unspokens. But I think it was very present there in my opinion just because I’m used to it.

Amanda: I was scared a little bit that they wouldn’t like me.

Kimberly: When I do my Shakespeare I’m often the only or one of very few black people or people of color period. So it’s always so delicious to watch when that happens for white people. I ask “Is this the first time you’ve felt white?” Because the reality is I feel who I am, I feel what I look like.

Jo: I know that the first time–it’s all very well in rehearsal to be talking about playing a maid, but–I was in the dressing room when Kimberly first put on the outfit and when she put that little maid thing on [the hat] I watched her face crumble. It was very painful to see herself as that stereotype. That was really a moment that was difficult, and she really had to travel through that moment in order to come out and embrace it and just deliver it. It’s no small thing to see yourself transformed into something that is everything that you and your parents and your grandparents and your community has fought against.

What effect do you think the play is having on audiences?

Jo: Lynn and I talked from the beginning that in some ways we felt it was always fabulous when the audiences was very mixed because the black community in some ways gave permission to the white community permission to laugh. It’s a back and forth, it’s like you suddenly find yourself laughing at something that is just one of those terrible, terrible archetypes or stereotypes and then there is a little intake of breathe and of like, “Hmm.” But I feel like if the entire room is laughing together. It actually generates a whole other discussion.

Lynn: My interest in this particular play was creating a trans-media piece. This is my first adventure into creating narratives that exist across platforms. Because I think that’s how Vera Stark would have lived. Those actresses: how do we conjure them? We go to the web. So if I’m going to create a narrative based on this character, she has to exist there as well. And in this particular story I felt like my narrative was more expansive than the proscenium. Before the next production we’re going to be launching the websites 2.0 which will be [even] more interactive.

Kimberly: I’m so optimistic. I feel like this play has the potential–because so many people in the industry are coming to see it–I really feel like this play has the potential to shift. I believe that with every fiber of my being. Because I’m here against my self saying, “Oh why would I do Lottie again, why would I come here in a body-modification suit in LA where people are gonna see me as a two-hundred pound woman, and they know Octavia Spencer is already gonna do that role?” But it is within me to come here because I believe this piece has the power to shift–or at least for a moment, make people sit back and go, hmmm, let’s think about this. … Even if it’s just a mental shift. I understand money and hierarchy and power, and one person sitting at the table isn’t going to say, We’re opening doors for everybody. That’s unrealistic. But I think if it’s just that seed that’s been planted in your mind …

What would you like say to the readers of The Ms. Magazine Blog?

Lynn: I want to ask them to look at these original films with a critical eye not just toward the white women but the black women, too, and them specifically as serving the white women. Often even intellectuals don’t extend their eyes that far.

Sanaa: I would just say come see the show. This is some of the most exciting theater you’ll see in a long time. It’s not like you can watch it on DVD in a few years. Theater is only there for the people who show up.

Jo: It’s clearly a story about women of color and dealing with stereotypes and archetypes and countering that in the media, but it’s also about a group of really smart ambitious women who had to find a way to play the cards they were dealt and find a way to do what they loved and to move forward in their lives.

Merle: I find that as women, whether it’s of color or not, there’s always something to be navigated. There’s always some boundary to be pushed and I think this play talks about that.

Amanda: We are so strong if we unite. If women united, I don’t even know, this world wouldn’t even know what to do with itself. And unfortunately, the majority of women tend to segregate themselves, because of fear or insecurities and all these things but when you are around women that want nothing but to lift you up and bring to light was is great and wonderful about you, then you just really can’t be stopped. There’s no reason for us to stand facing away from one another.