By Ahryel Tinker
Rooftop Productions’ By the Way, Meet Vera Stark presented the effervescent glamour of 1930s Hollywood while providing a biting commentary on racism and privilege in the film industry of the time. Lynn Nottage’s script begs for quick, conversational players, and debut director AnuRa Harrison’s casting certainly brought it to life.
In the close quarters of the ARTfactory venue, audience members are right in the action watching this compelling tale unfold. Technical director Jimmy Conroy effectively executed a rich design by Melissa Jo York-Tilley that puts the audience smack dab in the center of a multipurpose set. The scenes vary in setting and jump effectively from the living room of “America’s Sweetie Pie” Gloria Mitchell to a film studio parking lot and even a 1970s talk show. The technical elements of the show ran smoothly, with many intricate sound cues designed by Matthew Scarborough and well-executed multimedia designed by Laura Mills and Melissa Jo York-Tilley that elevates important scenes and details of the play.
The play follows Vera Stark as she works her way from being a maid for Gloria Mitchell (Deb Hansen) to being an actress playing a maid on the film screen. Vera’s character is loosely based on Theresa Harris, a Black actress from the 1930s who similarly had trouble blazing new trails due to the prejudice of the industry. Harris was quoted in The Afro American in 1937 saying: “I never had the chance to rise above the role of maid in Hollywood movies. My color was against me any way you looked at it. The fact that I was not ‘hot’ stamped me either as uppity or relegated me to the eternal role of stooge or servant.”
Olivia Royster’s portrayal of Vera Stark is full of clever wit and succinct character. She embodies the role with grace, bringing to life the sly hard-hitting Vera who takes no prisoners. Royster ignites the stage with life, giving Vera a charm that makes it clear why Leroy is smitten with her at first glance. On Sunday, March 26, Leroy Barksdale was played by Adrian Alleyne, whose dashing swagger lent itself to the jazzy nature of the character. For the closing weekend, March 31 to April 2, Curtis Lewis will take on the role of Barksdale.
The comedic relief in the play cleverly accompanies the hard truths that characters like Lottie McBride (Terresita Edwards) and Anna Mae (Karina Kasara Jimenez) bring to the story. The two women bring an over-the-top comedic flippancy that perfectly complements Royter’s Vera and juxtaposes the white, hothouse flower with a flair for the dramatic in Hansen’s Gloria Mitchell.
Fighting to find work in an industry plagued with racism and prejudice, Lottie, Anna Mae, Vera, and even Gloria—whose age comes into question during casting—find themselves stooping to low levels in an attempt to secure roles in a feature film. This moment of hilarity comes to a head at a dinner with studio bigwig Frederick Slasvick (Steve Glenn) and film director Maximillian Van Oster (Elijah Moshe Begab), whose discussion illuminates the stereotypes that the women were so eager to portray.
The versatility of the set only enhances the same quality in the actors on stage. Each actor has to step into different shoes with time jumps from the 1930s to the 1970s to the 2000s, and most of the cast is tasked with stepping into other roles after the intermission.
In a wonderfully poignant and touching display of truth, By the Way, Meet Vera Stark is an honest examination of the racism that plagued the film industry in the 1930s, and a magnifying glass on the prejudices that have carried through the years to today.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 15 minutes with a 15-minute intermission.
By the Way, Meet Vera Stark plays through April 2, 2023 (Friday and Saturday at 7:30 pm, Sunday at 2 pm), presented by Rooftop Productions performing at ARTfactory, 9419 Battle St., Manassas, VA. Purchase tickets (general, $30; student/senior, $25 with fees) online or at the door.