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Article posted: 5/10/2013 6:00 AM

Goodman's 'Vera Stark' falls short of potential

By Barbara Vitello

The subject of Lynn Nottage's "By The Way, Meet Vera Stark" -- an examination of racism in 1930s Hollywood -- is certainly ripe for satire.

The comedy is broad and the dialogue is funny. But Nottage's uneven dramedy about a fictional African American actress trying to break into the movies never comes together in a way that entirely satisfies.

Goodman Theatre's Chicago area premiere -- under resident director Chuck Smith, who helmed Goodman's 2006 production of Nottage's exquisite "Crumbs from the Table of Joy" -- benefits from solid work by Tamberla Perry as the titular Vera and Chiké Johnson as her love interest Leroy Barksdale, an aspiring composer making a living as a chauffeur. Yet this passable production neither soars, nor stings. At the end of the day, as much you wish it did, "Vera Stark" fails to make much of an impression.

The action begins in 1933 in the stylish Los Angeles home of Gloria Mitchell (a nicely self-absorbed Kara Zediker), an aging starlet once known as "America's Little Sweetie Pie" who's vying for the lead role of an octoroon courtesan in an antebellum plantation epic titled "The Belle of New Orleans." Helping her run lines is her maid, Vera Stark, an aspiring actress hoping to snag the part of Tilly, a maid ("slave with lines"), which was one of the few roles available to actresses of color at the time.

Also eager for a break are Vera's roommates. Lottie (the very funny TaRon Patron) intends to eat her way into a career as the stereotyped mammy, while pale-skinned Anna Mae (the spitfire Amelia Workman) passes for Brazilian and dates directors and studio executives in an attempt to sleep her way to stardom.

Working as servers at one of Gloria's parties, Vera and Lottie encounter "Belle of New Orleans" director Maximillian Von Oster (Ron Rains), who insists upon making his film as authentic as possible. His declaration sends Vera and Lottie into shuck and jive mode. In one of the play's slyest, most wickedly satirical moments, they stoop and shuffle, hum spirituals and speak in an exaggerated drawl in an effort to attract his attention and that of studio head Frederick Slasvick (Patrick Clear), who insists Depression-era audiences want a Southern fantasy where slaves loved their masters and their lot in life.

Gloria and Anna Mae, meanwhile, vie for the men's attention by displaying their physical assets.

Vera gets the part, which turns out to be a breakthrough role, earning her the film's last line and an Academy Award nomination. But within a few years, she disappears.

The broadly comic mood of the first act vanishes in the second, which begins at a 2003 colloquium where a trio of academics -- deliciously parodied by Johnson, Patton and Workman -- debate Vera's impact. Did she compromise her integrity and play to stereotypes to get work? Or was she before her time, using her performance to subtly subvert those stereotypes?

They bolster their contradictory opinions with Vera's last known television appearance on a 1973 talk show hosted by Clear's fawning Brad Donovan. There, in an uncomfortably candid interview, rueful Vera reflects on her legacy and the role that inaugurated a career spent playing slaves and maids with no last names.

"Tilly is my shame and my glory," she says, the confirmation of which is underscored by the arrival of an old colleague.

The play pairs live action with filmed segments mostly to good effect. In fact, one of the most genuine, most affecting moments in "Meet Vera Stark" occurs not onstage, but on screen where, in an ersatz documentary, Johnson's Barksdale recalls his relationship with Vera.

"She knew how to work all the angles and get a little more than what they were willing to give her," says Barksdale, whose own musical career ended following a fatal, racially motivated altercation.

The legacy of prejudice and intolerance is etched in Johnson's face. Well-written and beautifully acted, this brief but moving scene suggests what "Vera Stark" might have been.

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