I admit didn’t know much about Lynn Nottage’s By the Way, Meet Vera Stark going into this production. Directed by Eleanore Tapscott, this play tells the complex story of Vera Stark (a character who is a composite of many early Black film stars) and how racism in Hollywood—and the expectations and desires of others—can serve to erase someone’s identity. Nottage’s writing here is subtle and it takes some time to settle into the material. The big picture of the main character’s life is not handed to you in a neat package but reveals itself over time. Culture and interpersonal interactions can be stifling. By the Way, Meet Vera Stark is not for those who are unwilling to put in the mental and emotional work. However, if you are up to engaging it, this Colonial Players offering will give you a lot to think about.
The characters in this play are almost pure archetypes. Ashley Simon is the talented Vera Stark. From Simon’s performance we can glean the immense pressure Vera is under as a young, Black woman in 1930s Hollywood to conform to stereotypes about her race and gender. Along with Nottage’s script, Simon brings a realism to a character who is straining under the weight of having to work as a maid for Gloria Mitchell (Sarah Wade)—a woman she once performed alongside on the Vaudeville circuit—and having only the roles of “maid” or “slave” available to her on the big screen.
Act I spends a lot of time emphasizing the difficulty of the situation that many women of color faced during this period in history. Tracy McCracken, as Vera’s friend and roommate Lottie McBride, is an absolute gem of comic relief in a situation that was most definitely extremely damaging and not funny at all. McCracken bounces easily between Lottie’s skewering of the ridiculous “mammy” roles and the desolation of her lost potential as she recounts her performance as a lead in a Shakespeare play. For her, the sadness is twofold: she suffers as a Black woman and as a woman of a larger size, who is pigeonholed into roles that “fit” her physique even when they are at odds with how she views herself.
Colleen Isaiah plays a coy and scheming Anna Mae Simpkins, a light-skinned woman of color who tries to pass as white to “get in” with men in power at the studio lot. This role allows the play to explore yet more complex issues such as colorism in the Black community and how fickle and misleading our cultural construction of race can be. Both Isaiah and McCracken return in Act II to play different roles—and do so very well. Sarah Wade, as the white film star Gloria Mitchell, is utilized throughout the narrative to show that, as close as Gloria may have been to Vera, she is still (mostly) unable to transcend the desire to override Vera’s experience with her own version of events.
Rick Esteberg, Joseph T. Smithey, and Tom Wyatt double up their roles as well. One gets the sense that these characters are there only to show how men’s needs and desires often supersede the desires of women, as they are not particularly fleshed out by the script. Still, they all lend credence to telling the story of Vera’s erasure from her own life and identity, and each actor performs their roles with enthusiasm.
Colonial Players has been tinkering with technology quite a bit recently. Technical Designer Wes Bedsworth and Video and Projections Designer Julien Jacques deliver some spectacle to this production, which is quite film-heavy. Set Designer Edd Miller also does interesting work here, with some large set pieces that can be moved and flipped for each scene. Overall, the design elements were cohesive and supported the story, rather than detracting or distracting from it.
By the Way, Meet Vera Stark at Colonial Players is an illuminating and complex exploration of Black erasure through typecasting in Hollywood, as well as how difficult it can be for an individual to transcend the expectations of others. This is not the play to see if you’re interested in a mindless, fluffy evening of theater—though its comedic charm often lightens the mood. It is a play for people who are willing to listen to the stories that often go unheard. The title itself suggests that Vera is an afterthought to those around her. To know Vera’s truth, one only needs to be willing to cast aside their expectations and encounter her as a whole person.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.
By the Way, Meet Vera Stark plays through November 13, 2021, Thursdays through Sundays, at The Colonial Players’ historic theater-in-the-round in the heart of downtown Annapolis, 108 East Street Annapolis, MD. Tickets are $23 for adults; $18 for seniors 65 and older, full-time students with ID, and active military with ID. By the Way, Meet Vera Stark will be live-streamed through Broadway OnDemand. Tickets to live and streaming performances can be purchased online by calling the Box Office at 410-268-7373 and selecting option 2.