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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. logo
Stephanie J. Block and Saana Lathan
in By the Way, Meet Vera Stark
(© Joan Marcus)
The first act of Lynn Nottage's world premiere comedy, By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, now at Second Stage Theatre, is a brilliantly realized satire about racial stereotypes in Hollywood. Unfortunately, the second act, which attempts to deconstruct the legacy of early African-American film icons, is less satisfying.

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.

But this does not really seem to be Nottage's intent. Rather, the play as a whole appears aimed at inspiring audiences to seriously consider the cultural impact of racial representations in early cinema, as well as the complex ways that we relate to these images.

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