Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Lynn Nottage's MEET VERA STARK at the Alliance Theatre

     I was a great admirer of Lynn Nottage's RUINED, a harrowing picture of women trying to survive in a war torn African country. I saw it in New York and in London and was happy to be on the jury that nominated it for the Pulitzer Prize. Her MEET VERA STARK is both a comedy and a serious exploration of how Black women have had to enact stereotypes in order to survive economically. The play is uneven, to put it mildly; funny in places, draggy and repetitive in others. In the Alliance Theatre production, slack direction and the lack of a sense of ensemble only underscores the play's weaknesses.
     In the first act, set in 1933, Vera Stark (Toni Trucks) is the maid to Gloria Mitchell (Courtney Patterson), "Hollywood's Sweetheart." Gloria is an undisciplined, gin-soaked mess kept on track by Vera's ministrations. The two have an odd relationship that should raise some red flags for the audience. How can Vera get away with being so sassy and bossy to her boss? The play doesn't answer that question until the final scene, but hints are certainly there. The smart, pretty and talented Vera shares an apartment with Lottie (Nikiya Mathis), a former Broadway showgirl who has eaten her way into Hollywood Mammy roles, and the light-skinned Anna Mae (Tiffany Rachelle Stewart), who succeeds in masquerading as a "Brazilian bombshell" and bedding a major director. At a party in Gloria's swanky home, all these women perform various gender and racial stereotypes, hoping to get roles in a film epic about a consumptive octoroon in ante bellum New Orleans. There are moments in the first act that are hilarious and others that simply drag. The play desperately needs editing.
     The second act begins at a film conference in 2003 where Vera Stark's career is discussed by three caricatures of film critics including a lesbian feminist poet and performance artist sporting an Angela Davis Afro, a chic mixed-race cultural critic with the wonderful name Carmen Levy-Green and an over-stimulated Black male critic. While these academic caricatures natter on and on, they offer two superb ƒilm clips. The first is the final scene from "The Belle of New Orleans," the film the women in act I were shamelessly auditioning for. Here the women are flamboyantly parading stereotypes: the dying belle who announces the horrific fact that she is an octoroon; her devoted servant; the exotic woman with an accent (supposedly Creole) and the Mammy. The film saved Gloria Mitchell's career and made Vera Stark as much a star as a Black woman could be in 1933. The scene (a black and white film) is an hilarious parody. Oddly only a few in my audience caught on that it was supposed to be funny. There is also a devastating clip from a 1973 television talk show, sort of a Mike Douglas-Merv Griffin program (performed live) in which an sixty-something year old Vera, heavily made up, bizarrely clad and tipsy appears. After years of unemployment, Vera has a short stint in a Las Vegas show room. She has become a grotesque caricature of a Black (or Negro, as she calls herself) female performer. When Gloria Mitchell, now the wife of a famous British conductor, is brought on, Vera is at first affectionate, then furious at the different paths their lives have taken. The emcee keeps trying to bring the discussion back to "The Belle of New Orleans," but Vera can only note how the film has trapped her in the past and in a role she now hates. Vera made a conscious choice to play the only kind of role that was available to her in film, but it did not lead to a happy or fulfilling life.
     Nottage has a fascinating premise here, but MEET VERA STARK comes alive only fitfully. Act I is too long. The film scene and talk show scene are strong moments, but they are surrounded by the repetitive talk of the academic caricatures. The important flashback that should be a climactic moment seems tacked on. The problems in the script have been reinforced by the production. Director Leah C. Gardiner has allowed her actors to be too hammy when the play calls for discipline and a sense of ensemble. You are watching actors trying to be funny. Nothing is less funny than that, so the humor is fitful. The production also lacks pace -- tempo -- and that is deadly in comedy. I'm not sure the size and shape of the Alliance doesn't also work against the play. It's a strange space, much wider than it is deep. The play might do better in a more intimate venue. The actors seem to be working hard to fill the space. I enjoyed parts of MEET VERA STARK, but it needs both a tighter script and a tighter production.
MEET VERA STARK by Lynn Nottage. Alliance Theatre, Atlanta. October 22, 2013.  

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