NORCAL PREMIERE OF “BY THE WAY, MEET VERA STARK” INCLUDES A FIRST RATE CAST.
The highly acclaimed playwright Lynn Nottage (Pulitzer Prize-winning "Ruined”) excellent new play opens The Douglas Morrisson Theatre 2015-2016 “Revelations” Season. BY THE WAY MEET VERA STARK makes its regional and Norcal premiere directed by Dawn Monique Williams, and featuring a talented cast headed by Kelly Strickland as Vera Stark. Playwright Nottage continues her theme of portrayals of issues faced by women of color. VERA STARK is a comedy/drama that hits some racial stereotyping Hollywood issues about women in the workplace. The story based on the career of African- American actor Theresa Harris, during 1930’s golden age of Hollywood. The struggle for women of color trying to maintain a career in Hollywood is difficult to set in comedy form, but Nottage skill brings this issue clearly some needed satire.
Author Nottage who sets this story over 70 years said “I was interested in seeing the full journey of Vera Stark across time, and I was interested in seeing how she was treated in various media,- The first time I saw Theresa Harris, I immediately began asking questions,” Nottage says. “Who was she? What was her life like? Where did she come from? What were her dreams, what were her desires? When I sat down to write the play, it was to answer all those questions I had, not just about Theresa Harris but about a whole generation of African-American actresses like her.” Vera Stark is fictional but the power of the script and the themes it covers about old Hollywood is very important. "By the Way, Meet Vera Stark," Nottage examines the studio oppression faced by women, but in this witty play she offers a humorous satire about black actors dealing with the film industry in the 30’s.
The story is amusing yet still has a dark edge. The '30s screwball type comedy offers up some wonderful performances, Williams very skilled direction fits the stylish art deco design by Andrea Bechert wonderful set design. The setting has to range over 70 years from an old Hollywood home to a 1973 Television studio and 2003 panel discussion. Vera Stark is an actress working as a servant for film diva Gloria Mitchell, played with the best camp comic timing by local favorite Alicia von Kugelgen. As the Diva Mitchell "America's Little Sweetie Pie" auditions for the lead in southern classic saga picture, Vera finds her way into the film with a feature role. The script for the first act takes place in the 30’s and is witty and Williams keeps it brisk. The scene changes are well crafted by the ensemble as we move in and out of sound stages to the Deco parlor. An experienced cast plays various roles and doubles as other characters in the second act. The talented Khary Moye plays Leroy, the studio boss' “Man Friday” who flirts with Vera and their comic timing is perfection. As the story moves to 2003 - he is Herb Forrester, panel discussion host, Moyle is excellent and has the splendid timing with Strickland. Nottage script is at its best as the two spare. Strickland as Vera is sharp, satirical, and funny along with her roommate Shani Harris-Bagwell as the clever Lottie, they both have some humorous scenes as they warm up to the studio head Maximilian and also attempt to get cast in the southern epic.
Gene Mocsy is the over the top film director, paired with the very entertaining Jia Taylor as the bubbling Anna Mae, as she impersonates a Brazilian, hiding the fact she is black and is doing the classic Hollywood couch to get a role. Evan Soko is typical blind studio head and comes back in the second act as the Merv Griffin type talk show host, his wig is the best. Courtney Flores costumes need to span seven decades and she definitely makes that happen, the 70’s color is perfect and the 2003 look on the women is sharp. Becherts set opens to many back stage spaces for the first act, to the 70’s over the top TV studio in the second Act. The sound design by Cliff Caruthers is most effective during the talk show scenes were a live audience is created with recorded applause, and his use of period 30’s jazz music. Mike Oesch light design is also at its best when the story moves to the millennium and the stage transforms from the 70’s to 03 on a moment's cue .
Vera’s career is discussed in depth as the second act opens, featuring a well produced video film clip from the picture Vera and Gloria starred in "The Belle of New Orleans" produced by VideoProSF. In the present day 2003, we join an academic panel discussing “What ever happened to Vera Stark” as we view visual images from her life. A flashback part of the second act includes a 1973 TV talk show featuring an older wiser Stark responding to questions alongside Mocsy 70’s stoned rock musician as the second couch guest. Strickland brings a new Vera to end the story, a confident fearless women excited to share her story and the mishaps of Hollywood. The panel discussion continues bringing up some important issues about actors of color in show business. Moye is excellent as the moderator and Taylor and Harris-Bawell bring some compelling discussion as they watch the flashback to Vera’s TV Interview. The panel notes that Vera was sly and revolutionary a main subtext to this fine play. BY THE WAY MEET VERA STARK is powerhouse insightful Hollywood comedy, and one of Lynn Nottage best. It honors all the Hollywood legends of Black women and men performers.
Director Williams says it best “Pioneers, unsung hero’s , who endured racism, sexism - they shouted “I am here”, and paved the way for generations of Black girls with stars in their eyes - affirming that Black Lives Matter.”
Welcome back DMT - Vera runs through Sept 20th, don’t miss this wonderful cast, and story. DMT continues their “REVELATIONS SEASON” with four compelling plays including another regional premiere and a new solo artists festival.
Douglas Morrisson Theatre Presents
'BY THE WAY, MEET VERA STARK'
By Lynn Nottage, Directed by Dawn Monique Williams
Through: Sept. 20
Douglas Morrisson Theatre, 22311 N. Third St., Hayward
Running time: 2 hours and 25 minutes, one intermission
photos by Terry Sullivan