By the Way, Meet Vera Stark


Through Sunday, Sep. 30

North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theater, Raleigh

There’s jazz music in the theater before the play starts. Displayed on the screen at the back of the stage is a slideshow of African-American artists from the golden age of Hollywood. You could stumble into NRACT with no context and still get an impression of what’s about to happen. 

Then the lights go down, and Gloria Mitchell (played by Rebekah Holland) walks onstage, one pistol in hand away from becoming a femme fatale. But instead, she lies down dramatically as Vera Stark (Terra Hodge) enters and says there’s a man outside. 

The building tension comedically breaks when we learn that Gloria is a movie star, and Vera is just helping her run lines for her next “picture,” as they were called in the 1930s, when the play is set. Vera is Gloria’s maid and confidant. She cooks, cleans, and acts as a shoulder to cry on—though Gloria maintains they’re more friends than anything. 

But as the title implies, Vera Stark has big dreams of her own

.As Hollywood enjoys its golden age, the rest of the country is in a depression. Gloria is aging and nervous, but Vera still looks upon her with daggers of envy. To maintain Hollywood status when you’re ascending in years is a difficult task. To get anywhere at all as an African-American actress, however, is nearly impossible. Talkies are young, and a generation of white actors are scrambling to keep up, while black Americans, artistic or otherwise, are fighting to make a mark on the world. Vera wants more liberated roles. When she meets director Maximilian Von Oster, played eccentrically yet genuinely by Stephan Carl, she seeks out her opportunity.

It’s clear that this wasn’t written in the 1930s. Lynn Nottage wrote the play in this decade, and she doesn’t shy away from writing about promiscuity and alcohol abuse (Gloria is hardly the sweetheart that people make her out to be). The play is often nothing short of hilarious, and not a single actor appeared to be bored, exaggerating character interactions with exasperated line delivery and gestures. David Klionsky’s Frederick Slavick is a bit overacted, with a slipping accent and an overuse of the baritone of his voice, but trust me when I say he’ll redeem himself as a comedic actor in the second act. 

This transition to said act is quite fascinating. We feel we know what baggage will come, with Vera trying to achieve fame and maintain her relationships. It’s these expectations, in part, that make what Nottage actually does so brilliant. Instead of a route of predictability, we get a time jump. It’s the twenty-first century now. Vera and Gloria are both household names, and their dynamic is the debate of scholars and critics of the new millennium. And yet Vera hasn’t been seen since the 1970s. I won’t reveal the logistics of how the second act functions, but its cleverness is commendable. 

The other five actors play different characters than they did in Act One, with new sets of comedic strengths that flex the actors’ potential in unexpected ways. Klionsky becomes the funniest man onstage. But comedy aside, this foray into the past from the perspective of our time presents an analysis of what the fictitious Vera faced as an African American in Hollywood, and what she meant for that community as well as the film industry. It dissects Stark and Mitchell’s relationship to the point that, even though it’s Stark in the title, I maintain that it’s really about the two of them and the social classes they represent. It’s a truly heartbreaking look at how the how the simple color of your skin can nullify your talent, your efforts, your entire existence.

Tina Morris-Anderson directs this play for NRACT, and she does so with vigor, refusing to compromise the themes and messages. The script has dialogue and interactions that drag a bit, and it feels overwritten at times, but its weight sticks with you. I implore readers to see this play.