For African Americans, few celluloid images cause more mixed feelings, more angst and antipathy, than that of the black domestic. On the one hand, playing the maid was often a black actress' only entrée into the movies — think Hattie McDaniel snaring that Oscar for Gone With the Wind. And on the other hand, playing the maid only served to reinforce negative racial stereotypes — think Butterfly McQueen in that same flick, all bug-eyed and squealing about how she didn't know nuthin' about birthin' no babies.
So were the women who resorted to playing those roles in the '30s, '40s and '50s self-interested sellouts? Race traitors? Should that have, as Lena Horne's father famously insisted his daughter do, refused to play the help? Or were they doing the best they could, given the hand that Hollywood dealt them? Or were they operating from a completely different agenda, committing subversive acts and having the last laugh at Hollywood's expense?
Such are the questions posed by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage's wildly funny new play starring Sanaa Lathan, By the Way, Meet Vera Stark. (The play opens off-Broadway today at the Second Stage Theatre in New York.) Where her previous work, Ruined, focused on the very serious business of rape survivors in the Democratic Republic of Congo, with Vera Stark, Nottage takes on '30s-era screwball comedies to drive home points about racial stereotypes and racial identity, cultural appropriation and exploitation. Vera Stark is a play within a movie within a play, a 70-year journey through the life of a strong-willed black domestic who really wants to act.
It opens in the boudoir of Gloria Mitchell (Stephanie J. Block), who is being administered to by her long-suffering maid, Vera Stark (Lathan). At first blush, the scene appears to be something out of a '30s era weepy, until we quickly realize that the two women are reading lines for a screen test and that this is no ordinary employer-domestic relationship. Vera's a little too tell-it-like-it-is, and Gloria's a little too ready to be told-like-it-is. There's some kind of shared secret simmering beneath the surface, but what is it?
Gloria's a Hollywood star ("America's Little Sweetheart") trying to grasp at what remains of the luster of her once-potent stardom; Vera's a Hollywood domestic (replete with the requisite black-and-white maid's uniform) who's trying to grasp at an elusive movie career in 1933. And if that means playing a maid on the big screen or, as Vera tells her roommate, Lottie (Kimberly Hebert Gregory), "slaves with lines," then so be it. A woman's gotta do what a woman's gotta do.
"You've got to be high yellow mellow or look like you crawled out of the Mississippi cotton patch to get work in this town," says the classically trained Lottie, who, like Vera, must make ends meet by working as the help rather than, say, playing Juliet. On the high yellow mellow tip is their third roommate, Anne Mae (Tony Award-winning Karen Olivo from West Side Story), who also adheres to the by-any-means-necessary dictum of making it in Hollywood. And for Anne Mae, that means pretending to be a Brazilian bombshell rather than a regular light-skinned black girl, the better to woo the Russian artiste who just happens to be directing a New Orleans epic.
Watching from the sidelines is Leroy Barksdale (Daniel Breaker, Passing Strange), the "Man Friday," aka chauffeur, of said director. He's a trumpeter studying to be a composer — the better to control his own musical destiny — and he can't understand why anyone would be willing to play a slave. "Why are we still playing slaves? It was hard enough getting free the first time around," he tells Vera.
All those desperately competing ambitions collide in a gut-busting scene at the end of the first act, when Gloria hosts a party for the director and the Hollywood studio exec who insists that he only wants to see a movie with "happy slaves." Everyone's pretending to be something that they're not — acting in earnest — from Vera and Lottie to Gloria and Anne Mae.
Consider Vera Stark the flipside to the '30s era comedies and weepies — the black side. In Act 2, we get to see the final, black-and-white scene of that New Orleans movie — an actual movie within the play — that Vera and Gloria were so desperate to star in, and we get to see what happened to Vera, years later, after the cameras stopped rolling. (Hint: She's a little bit supper-club-era Lena Horne, a little bit Shirley Bassey, a little bit Eartha Kitt and a whole lot of booze.)
Here, Nottage departs from the straight linear narrative of the first act to play with time, depicting scenes from two years — 1973 and 2003 — onstage at the same time, a Dick Cavett-esque talk show and a modern-day academic symposium debating the Vera's legacy.
But while the second act is amusing, it comes off as more of an SNL skit, with its send-ups of black academics and '70s-era hipsters, than a fleshed-out denouement to the excellent — and sidesplitting — first act. When one of the professors at the end asks, "Questions?" the viewer might have answers to Vera's motivations, but other questions remain.
Vera Stark is being billed as a star vehicle for Lathan, and in this production, she is indeed very, very good, all starry eyes and fierce determination in the first act and, in the second act, filled with world-weary defensiveness. But Vera Stark is, ultimately, an ensemble effort, with some of the best talent in the theater world colluding brilliantly to expose Hollywood's — and society's — hypocrisies.
Teresa Wiltz is The Root's senior editor for culture.
Who's played the black maid on screen? See our historic gallery of stars who have served.