Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

It's The Pictures That Got Small

September 29, 2012

Amanda Detmer and Sanaa Lathan Photo by Michael Lamont/Geffen Playhouse 2012
Lynn Nottage’s most recent play By The Way, Meet Vera Stark has arrived in Los Angeles for it West Coast premiere this week at the opening of the fall season for the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood. The play is a distinctly light-hearted follow-up to Nottage’s last stunner of a play, Ruined about the atrocities of war faced by African women on this very planet in these very days. But even though we are making the acquaintance of Vera Stark for the first time, Nottage is treading territory and a certain light-hearted tone familiar to her audiences in such works as Intimate Apparel. Vera Stark is an actress in a time and place, 1930s Hollywood, where African-American women rarely get the opportunity to do any work at all in their chosen profession. In fact much of the evening deals with Stark’s relationships with the white folks she works with as she struggles to find her place in a town where she and her friends are largely unwelcome outside of serving in a variety of domestic and supporting roles both on screen and off.

But Stark, a sharp sly Sanaa Lathan, perseveres landing a large role, though it is still as a maid, in the fictional 1930s classic film “The Belle of New Orleans” opposite her white friend, cousin, starlet and employer Gloria Mitchell, played here by Amanda Detmer. This film will end up establishing Stark’s name in cinematic history and serves as the substrate for the play’s second act ostensibly set during a modern–day film conference where fake scholars debate the legacy of Stark while also revisiting her last filmed interview as part of an appearance opposite Mitchell in a 1970s TV talk show guest spot. If it sounds like the play gets “meta” it does. But not necessarily successfully. Filmed segments are mixed with live action here including a live performance recreation of the video interview segment from the 1970s. While the first half of the show has an almost madcap sitcom feel to it with Stark and her friends desperately trying to finagle roles in a big Hollywood film, the second half portends to be far more sophisticated. It rarely succeeds in getting there, though, as director Jo Bonney burdens the academic conference framing device with stock cartoon faux-academic caricatures that grouse and mug for comic effect in what struck me as an unintentional parallel to the minstrelsy that Stark and her friends find themselves constrained to recapitulate in an effort to work breaking down walls in their own chosen field.

It is the confused tone that makes By The Way, Meet Vera Stark most frustrating. The show goes deliberately for cheap laughs when in range of making its biggest points. Nottage also seems uncertain of how to balance this content against the drama of the interpersonal relationship and history of Mitchell and Stark, which at times is offered up as a mystery only to be abandoned in favor of other pursuits and never revisited. The play does cover territory worth considering, though, and despite its faults and the missteps of an overly jocular production, By The Way, Meet Vera Stark does manage to give voice to a particular moment in American cultural history with respect to African-American women that doesn’t always make it way on real life stages. The show continues at the Geffen through the 28th of October.


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