Meet Vera Stark: Domestic Ambiguity in Hollywood
Lynn Nottage's latest play tackles the hypocrisy and stereotyping that engulfs the black actress playing a maid in American film.
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?