Elizabeth Marshall Black as Gloria Mitchell and Michelle Elaine as Vera Stark

By the Way, Meet Vera Stark
Thru April 14
$19–36
Ensemble Theatre
3535 Main St
713-520-0055
ensemblehouston.org 

In the first act of Lynn Nottage’s By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, the title character is a young African American maid in 1930s Los Angeles who wants more out of life—to become a Hollywood actress who plays young African American maids in the movies. The desperation with which she pursues such a painfully modest goal infuses this comedy—currently on view in a thoroughly entertaining production at Ensemble Theatre—with no small amount of melancholy. In the second act, which begins 40 years later and ends 30 years after that, the title character is an aging Hollywood has-been who again wants more out of life—to prove that she can be more than the role that made her famous (you guessed it, as an African American maid). All this time-jumping feels forced, and takes Nottage’s play in a discursive, less entertaining direction. Still, you leave the theater not glum but grateful for the evening’s stinging and hilarious moments, of which there are several.

The film that gives Vera her big break is something called The Belle of New Orleans. An antebellum epic that’s half Gone With the Wind, half La Traviata, and all hokey, the plot appears to principally concern itself with consumptive, bedridden Marie and her relationship with Tillie, Marie’s servant. Oh, and there’s one more layer here—Marie is played by a pampered actress known as Gloria Mitchell (a.k.a. “America’s Little Sweetie-Pie” of the era), for whom Vera has also been a maid in real life. It all leads up to the moment when the audience gets to view a clip of the climax of The Belle of New Orleans, in which Tillie cradles the dying heroine and utters what has allegedly become the film’s classic line, “Stay awake, and together we’ll face a new day.” It is a scene that academics will seize on in Vera Stark’s second act, debating whether the line might have racial under- or overtones (the play having time-jumped again by this time to 2003). It is also a scene that will haunt the older Vera till the end of her days (excerpts from a Dick Cavett–style ’70s talk show depict the public’s frustrating inability to accept her, even in old age, as anyone other than Tillie).  It is also drop-dead, hysterically, side-splittingly funny. (The Art Institute of Houston’s digital program is credited with this and other terrific filmic contributions.)

Everyone in the seven-member cast is a pleasure to watch, and in a few cases the performances are outstanding, especially in the play’s Depression-era first act. Tisha Dorn contributes impeccable comic timing and dangerous energy to the role of Lottie, one of Vera’s roommates, and L.D. Green has his own great moments of mirth and menace as Vera’s love interest, Leroy Barksdale, a chauffeur-turned-trumpet player-turned embarrassing drag on Vera’s career. As for the protagonist, Michelle Elaine is a treat to watch during Vera’s younger years, but somewhat less convincing as a 60-something washed-up Vera. (Elizabeth Marshall Black, who plays Gloria Mitchell, elicits a similarly mixed reaction.)

But Vera Stark, despite an overlong second act, has a great deal of interesting things to say about the modern world and its dilemmas (as Hattie McDaniel, oft-criticized for her Oscar-winning turn in Gone With the Wind, put it, “I’d rather make $700 a week playing a maid than earn $7 a day being a maid”). It is similarly eloquent about the plight of African American actors (both men and women, both then and now). And thanks to Eileen J. Morris’s swift and confident direction, Vera Stark says them in way that makes for a unique and uniquely enjoyable night at the theater.

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