The life, and subsequent journey, of the up-and-coming starlet is a well-explored—arguably overly romanticized—plot point in modern storytelling. The bright-eyed hopeful is always cast as an inspiration—a pillar of what it means to make the impossible possible through incomparable talent, unwavering determination, and hard work. Albeit a well-worn tale, her journey is recognizable, and her rise awe-inspiring.
However, for many Black creatives in the entertainment industry, the white-washed tale of the starlet is emblematic of the roadblocks and systemic failures that often limit their own journeys to fame.
By the Way, Meet Vera Stark is a provocative yet humorous commentary on the dissonance in both the experience of the starlet and the reception of her journey. The play, by Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Lynn Nottage, brilliantly explores what it meant to be a young Black aspiring actress in the 1930s as it follows a young African American maid, Vera Stark, as she struggles to achieve her dream of becoming a breakout actress.
The Corcoran School of the Arts and Design production of this play executes Nottage’s vision marvelously as the production effectively captures the rise, and subsequent fall, of Vera Stark (Anne Laurie Joseph).
The play’s first act focuses on Vera’s rise as she fights to prove her talents and secure her eventual breakout role all while navigating a rather complex social dynamic with her boss, the esteemed Gloria Mitchell (Taylor Smith), “America’s Sweetie Pie.” The first act delivers substantially on the play’s advertised irreverence and comedic commentary as each scene is interspersed with well-timed jokes and subtle gags that directly challenge the inherent racism and misogyny of 1930s Hollywood.
Vera’s chemistry and humorous rapport with her roommates and friends Lottie McBride (Audrey Wilson) and Anna Mae Simpkins (Lady’Jordan Matthews-Mason) are palpable. Even more so are the complex relationship between Vera and Gloria and her budding romance—following a meaningful heart-to-heart—with aspiring musician, Leroy Barksdale (Kyell Andrale), which does a phenomenal job of giving an initial taste of the complexities behind Vera’s character and aspirations.
These outstanding moments make the first act humorous and enjoyable—undoubtedly helped by the cast’s infectious charm and commanding stage presence. Unfortunately, it otherwise comes off as cookie-cutter and unnoteworthy. The first act does little to explicitly challenge the racism that hinders Vera’s rise to stardom and thus comes off as unremarkable, albeit delightful and fun.
However, these shortcomings are immediately assuaged as the play breaks into its second act. All the humor and charm that made the first act excellent is only further enhanced by a thoughtful examination of race and gender as it related to Vera’s journey following her critically successful breakout role. While the first act was the more blatantly humorous of the two, there was a constant thread of subtle irony and self-awareness woven throughout the second act, elevating it and securing its place as the rousing climax and evocative conclusion to the entire performance.
Under the phenomenal direction of Sidney Monroe Williams, the cast’s brilliance continues to shine from start to finish. From Vera herself to even the most seemingly inconsequential side characters like Peter Rhys-Davies (Avery Dell), the entire cast is incredibly charming and their performances captivating. Each scene is punctuated by genuine, heartfelt chemistry between the characters. Whether it be Rhys-Davies’ delightfully chaotic antics or Vera and Gloria’s tender and heated exchanges, the cast never fails to imbue life and multi-layered character into their roles.
The charm and brilliance of the production’s cast and direction are also evident within the play’s other elements. The play’s 15-minute intermission features a series of short yet creative performances that help to keep the audience fully engaged during downtime while also seamlessly transitioning from the 1930s of the first act to the 1970s and early 2000s of the second.
The production’s creativity is furthered by multimedia elements, especially within the play’s second act. The use of an actual projector to broadcast Vera’s most famous scene, as well as an accompanying presentation, expertly builds upon the themes of film and reflection throughout the play while also allowing the audience to feel fully integrated into the performance.
The production’s lighting and sound elements, designed by Michele Onwochei and Amelia Jacquat respectively, are equally remarkable and facilitate a truly authentic and immersive atmosphere.
Moreover, Tiffany I. Syndor’s scenic design and Sigríður Jóhannesdóttir’s dazzling costuming, including Vera’s stunning green dress in the second act, add an additional dimension of intrigue and brilliance to the production. These elements complement each other beautifully while subtly elevating various character moments.
As it asks the question “What happened to Vera Stark?” this production does an astounding job of balancing irreverent humor and sincere commentary through its charming cast, thoughtful direction, and seamless integration of multimedia elements.
Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes with a 15-minute intermission.
By the Way, Meet Vera Stark played from March 2 to March 5, 2023, at The Corcoran School of the Arts and Design @ GW, Building XX, Black Box, 814 20th Street NW, Washington, DC. Tickets ($10–$20) were purchasable online.
The program for By the Way, Meet Vera Stark is online here.