By the Way, Meet Vera Stark
Sanaa Lathan delivers a delightful performance in Lynn Nottage's new comedy about an African-American actress from the 1930s and the legacy she left behind.
The action begins in 1933, as the show's title character, delightfully played by Sanaa Lathan, is working as a maid for film star Gloria Mitchell (Stephanie J. Block). Gloria is up for a part in a new film by renowned director Maximilian Von Oster (Kevin Isola). Vera -- who is an aspiring actress herself -- has a particular interest in this new project, as it has a rather sizable role for the character of a black maid named Tilly.
This segment of the play is performed mostly as a screwball comedy, and director Jo Bonney keeps the action moving at a sprightly pace. Block and Lathan establish a good camaraderie, and the show is also enlivened by stellar turns from Karen Olivo and Kimberly Hebert Gregory as Vera's roommates; Daniel Breaker as a potential love interest, Leroy; and David Garrison as a Hollywood studio head.
Interestingly, the cast features quite a few musical theater stars and several of them get to show off their abilities to good effect. Breaker impresses as Leroy scats a sequence as a way of explaining a point to Vera, while flirting with her as well. The best full-out singing is performed by Gregory, who belts the spiritual "Go Down, Moses." Sadly, Olivo -- who won a Tony for her work as Anita in West Side Story -- is one of the only cast members who doesn't get to sing.
Vera's attempts to land the coveted role of Tilly in Von Oster's film culminate in a hysterically funny first act closer that satirically demonstrates the limited opportunities for African-American actresses in the 1930s, while simultaneously showing the demeaning lengths to which these actresses would go for a good part.
The second act flashes forward to the year 2003, as a trio of scholars (played by Breaker, Gregory, and Olivo) looks back upon the legacy of Vera Stark and the part she played in early Hollywood representations of African-Americans. Included in their retrospective is a "screening" of Vera's final 1973 televised interview, which is performed live on a different part of Neil Patel's multi-purpose set.
Lathan ably demonstrates Vera's sad decline from the impassioned spitfire of the first act to the has-been lush with anger issues that we witness on the talk show. The primary problem with the second act -- in script, direction, and performance -- has more to do with the representation of the scholars, who are portrayed as such pompous buffoons that it's easy to be dismissive of everything that they say.